Ivory Coast incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo during his swearing-in ceremony...

Ivory Coast incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo during his swearing-in ceremony in the Ivory Coast in December. Credit: AP

"What if they gave a war and nobody came?" So goes an old Vietnam War era bumper sticker. I've got an update in mind: What if they gave a war and nobody paid attention?

That thought has come to mind as I follow, amid the unusually dense fog of recent world news events, a tragedy the developed world has found sadly easy to ignore: the war in the Ivory Coast.

If you appreciate democracy, the former French colony's incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo offers a lot to leave you outraged.

He was voted out of office on Nov. 28, but he decided not to leave. International election observers, the United Nations and African Union agree that his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, won and they want Gbagbo to go. Yet Ouattara has been relegated to operating a government-in-exile in a hotel circled by tanks, razor wire and a UN force.

Unlike Moammar Gadhafi's opponents in Libya, Ouattara has had a fairly disciplined rebel force on his side, waging a war to unseat Gbagbo at a cost so far of at least 400 lives and as many as a million refugees.

But that's not enough for the Ivory Coast to get much news coverage or attention in the United States. It is their misfortune to have little strategic value to us or our allies, except perhaps as the world's top cocoa producer.

Yet with more than a dozen other elections scheduled this year in sub-Sahara Africa, the survival of democracy in the Ivory Coast sends important international signals. It shows how well developing nations can avoid slipping back into an infamous post-colonial affliction known as "one person, one vote, one time."

That's what's happened with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who clings to power through torture and terror despite being voted out in 2008. Journalist Peter Godwin, a Zimbabwe native, describes in his new book, "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe," how the former freedom fighter now commits old autocrat's tricks, like committing some of his worst atrocities when he knows the world is looking at bigger crises elsewhere.

As a result, Godwin says, pro-democracy movements in Africa and elsewhere find themselves waging a "reverse beauty contest" -- the uglier your tyrant's abuses, the more likely you will be rewarded with outside support.

Unfortunately, he writes, in the Olympics of African moral outrages, "Zimbabwe's body count earns us a mere bronze to Darfur's gold and Congo's silver."

What's a beleaguered freedom fighter to do? Americans care about our foreign neighbors, but our national attention span is as limited as our national budget. A new poll finds that even Libya can hardly compete with the Japan earthquake-tsunami disaster for our attention, even after the United States and our NATO allies launched combat operations. Only 15 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said they were paying more attention to the military operation than other news stories.

To what were we paying attention? More than half -- 57 percent -- rated the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as the story they were following more closely than any other -- even though most major news media were making Libya the top story during the March 24-27 period when the survey was taken.

If even Libya has trouble engaging Americans, even when American bombs are dropping, what are democracy defenders in out-of-the-way places like Zimbabwe to do? They don't have oil or, as far as anyone knows, al-Qaida cells, the two biggest magnets for the West's attention since the Cold War.

In an NPR interview, Godwin brought up a timely suggestion made by his wife, "What you need is a celebrity." If you're a desperate enough country or freedom movement, it wouldn't hurt.

If the public's obsession with stardom has any redeeming social value, it is in the attention celebrities often bring to worthy causes and beleaguered countries. Darfur has had George Clooney and Don Cheadle. Haiti has Wyclef Jean and Sean Penn. The UN High Commission for Refugees has Angelina Jolie, who occasionally adopts orphans along the way.

Or you could take a tip from the old mid-1950s novel and movie, "The Mouse That Roared" and declare war on the United States, then quickly surrender. We can be quite generous to the countries that we conquer. At least it gets our attention.

E-mail Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.