Lanny Davis, lobbyist and former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, resigned last Wednesday from a controversial contract to act as a media liaison for Ivory Coast’s President Laurent Gbagbo. Davis had come under intense criticism prompted by reports that forces loyal to Gbagbo provoked violence after the president invalidated results of a recent election that most international observers contend he lost.
Davis argues that he was acting as a mediator to resolve the dispute between President Gbagbo and the opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara. This is, however, contradicted by reports that he was hired by the Gbagbo regime to represent the president as a spokesperson.
Following a recent runoff election, which apparently delivered enough votes for Ouattara to dislodge Gbagbo, the president illegally invalidated the election’s results, and violence has ensued. Most international institutions, including the UN and the regional economic bloc ECOWAS, have recognized Ouattara as the legal president of Ivory Coast, but Gbagbo has refused to step down. A UN report released by the Human Rights Council has found numerous and increasing violations of human rights against Ouattara supporters by agents of the Gbagbo regime.
As evidence mounted that the Gbagbo regime was not acting in good faith, media scrutiny of Davis’s dealings with it intensified. In a contentious interview with CNN reporter Hala Gorani, Davis defended his work for Gbagbo and contended that the UN report could prove to be faulty. He cited UN reports regarding alleged human rights violations by Israel that turned out to be erroneous as grounds for suspicion of any allegation of human rights violations from the UN.
Goodwin Cooke, who was ambassador to the Central African Republic from 1978 to 1980 and is currently an emeritus professor of international relations at Syracuse University, is not surprised by Davis’s defense. “Public affairs professionals will get close the edge when dealing with the truth,” Cooke says. “I cannot see that Mr. Davis has gone way beyond any particular ethical rule.”
Cooke believes that Davis was acting in good faith and finds it difficult to criticize his actions, especially now that he has resigned. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Davis did himself much long-term good by taking the lucrative $100,000-per-month contract with Gbagbo. “He may have lessened the likelihood of being hired elsewhere,” says Cooke. “[Future clients] will say that he worked for Gbagbo and that makes him look like dirty goods. He may have made some money, but he made a mistake.”
This is the risk that political consultants run when working for foreign governments, particularly those in developing nations with a history of civil strife such as Ivory Coast. Cooke says that there is no ethical rule holding that one cannot consult for a government of questionable repute, one should do extremely due diligence on the government in question before taking on the assignment—or suffer a potentially debilitating hit to one’s reputation. “Make sure you are well informed about the situation, as informed as you can be,” Cooke advises. “Consult with experts and other consultants about the region.”
In the end, Cooke sees Davis’s decision to consult for Gbagbo as a miscalculation, “not because it is illegal, [but because] you will be looked at with suspicion.”
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com