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Bloody Democracy in Ivory Coast: What Went Wrong?

The dilemma in world politics today is that the UN remains unable to produce a coherent blueprint to face legitimacy conflicts in the developing world. Lacking its own armed force, the UN offers only the same old global management. But global management by the UN alone has failed to translate the concept of collective security into a predictable policy backed by decisive and credible actions. The prime example of such a failure is Ivory Coast, where, at this moment, bullets are replacing ballot boxes to institute democracy.

Following its November 28 runoff election, the Ivory Coast had two presidents, two prime ministers, and two governments -- or it had until yesterday. The runoff was intended to end a decade of political and military crisis. Instead the country plunged into a deeper crisis when the Constitutional Council, which was led by an ally of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, declared him the winner, alleging that the ballot was fraudulent in parts of the north controlled by the rebels. The Council thereby overruled the Independent Electoral Commission's decision in favor of the challenger, Alassane Ouattara, a day before it was formalized. Despite the fact that Ouattara is recognized internationally as the duly elected president, Gbagbo refused to step down. The presence of French and UN peacekeeping troops did not dissuade him from usurping power.

As forces loyal to Ouattara are surrounding Abidjan from several directions, their offensive threatens to make that last stronghold of Gbagbo a bloody battleground. The fighting reflects the failure of the UN to translate the concept of peacekeeping into a predictable policy backed by decisive and credible actions. Billions of dollars have been squandered on an ill-advised peace plan, leaving guns as the symbol of power instead of voting cards.

Besides the UN's failure, the last-minute call by the US to protect civilians from violence is what is referred in political science to as "organized hypocrisy." If the justifications to intervene in Libya were based on (1) "the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," (2) "an international mandate for action," (3) "a broad coalition," (4) "the support of Arab countries," and (5) "a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves," then Ivory Coast qualified for the same intervention a long time ago. The absence of any decisive will to use an unmatchable military power by a third-party broker against Gbagbo effectively endorsed his usurpation of power. Worse, crimes against humanity, such as women slaughtered during a peaceful march or mortar shells fired in the direction of a crowded market, were tolerated. More than 460 people were killed, says the UN, and at least 800,000 people were forced from their homes. And yet any intervention would have been less expensive than the one in Libya.

A lesson can be learned from the Ivorian case. In a post-civil-war period, the absence of a credible threat by a third-party force capable of deterring uncooperative protagonists allows the push for democratization to crumble. Where mistrust among hostile forces is strong, a third-party broker's unmatchable military threat attenuates fears about the future. Security becomes the determining factor in making democracy workable in post-civil war. Indeed, in a similar context of lawlessness and bloodshed as in the Ivory Coast, President Bush's decisive action to remove President Charles Taylor from power in Liberia helped institute democracy in record time. That happened because he ordered a fleet to be positioned off the Liberian coast to help peacekeepers create the conditions for humanitarian aid to enter the country. The simple fact that the Marines were aboard three ships bobbing off Monrovia's shores sent a credible coercive signal to all warring parties.