Global Policy Forum

During Taylor's Brutal Rule, US Watched, Waited


Liberian Now Facing Hague

By Bryan Bender

Boston Globe
June 3, 2007

In the fall of 1998, as President Charles Taylor consolidated his grip on Liberia, the defense attache at the US Embassy invited representatives of the country's formerly warring factions to a series of dinners at his residence. The overture was intended to help the West African nation make a fresh start after more than a decade of civil war. But Taylor's government had other ideas: Members of the three opposing factions "who attended these dinners have been shot dead," the embassy bluntly reported to Washington in a secret cable in October. "When the going gets tough, Taylor intends to rule through the barrel of a gun," the cable continued.

The secret cable, one of dozens obtained by the Globe under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed for the first time how early the United States was tracking Taylor's alleged crimes in his six-year tenure as president. Despite the State Department's stark conclusion about Taylor's murderous intentions, it took another five years -- during which militias armed by Taylor allegedly caused an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 deaths -- for the United States to call for his ouster. Much of Taylor's time in office, the United States continued to supply economic aid to Liberia, helped train government personnel, and maintained a policy of watching and waiting, according to the cables.

Tomorrow, Taylor, 59, will become the first African leader to be tried for war crimes when he goes before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. An 11-count indictment charges him with crimes against humanity and other "serious violations of international humanitarian law, including sexual slavery and mutilations" while serving as Liberian president, during which time he allegedly funded the rebels seeking to overthrow the government of neighboring Sierra Leone. "The picture we will present is of an individual who was the author and leader of the war in Sierra Leone and a form of terrorism the world had rarely seen, including mass murders, mutilations, forced labor, and use of child soldiers," Stephen Rapp, the lead prosecutor, said in an interview.

The cables make clear that US diplomats knew that Taylor, a former Boston - area college student, was behind the death squads in Sierra Leone. Yet the State Department, under the Clinton and Bush administrations, cultivated good relations with Taylor. The State Department's high hopes for Taylor stemmed in part from America's ties to Liberia and to Taylor. Liberia became the first independent African republic when it was established by freed American slaves in 1847. Its capital, Monrovia, was named for James Monroe, the American president who first supported African-American settlements in Africa. As one cable from the embassy to the State Department put it in December 2002, "Liberia is virtually a commonwealth of America and most of Taylor's government was trained there and is strongly pro-American."

Friend of the United States

Taylor also advertised himself as a friend of the United States. He arrived in Boston on a student visa in 1972 at age 24, and studied economics at Chamberlayne Junior College in Newton and later at Bentley College in Waltham. In later years, Taylor often used his Boston ties to convince American diplomats he was committed to American-style democracy. One cable in 2002 summarizing a meeting between Taylor and US officials reported that "Taylor claims that he has been an advocate for human and political rights for many years, including as a student organizer during his ten years in the United States."

After his decade in Boston, Taylor took a job in the Liberian government but returned to the United States in 1984 after being charged with embezzling more than $900,000 in government funds. He was arrested in Boston, and while awaiting extradition in September 1985, he escaped from the Plymouth House of Corrections. Taylor emerged four years after his prison break as head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which crossed into Liberia from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire on Christmas Eve 1989, leading to the overthrow of military leader Samuel K. Doe and setting off seven years of civil war.

Still, the United States had high hopes for Taylor when in 1997 he became Liberia's first democratically elected president in 12 years. The State Department initiated efforts to help train Liberia's police force, sponsor good-governance programs, and provide humanitarian aid. "Taylor, seen as charismatic and articulate, also talked a good game," said Nicolas Cook, a specialist in African affairs at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "There was some initial optimism that he might implement his electoral promises to pursue political and economic rebuilding and reconciliation."

High hopes are dashed

As the cables indicate, those hopes quickly were dashed -- but the United States continued to provide aid and assistance to Taylor's government. In October 1999 -- a year after the cable that declared Taylor "intends to rule through the barrel of a gun" -- US Ambassador Bismarck Myrick attended a ceremony with Taylor in Buchanan, about 95 miles southeast of Monrovia, to launch an international logging venture that Taylor promised would help rebuild the country's economy.

The show of support was no accident: Another cable from the embassy to the State Department that month declared that the embassy's "cultivation of rapport with [Taylor] gives us a fresh, new vehicle for communicating our own message" of promoting human rights and democracy. But the US support for the Liberian logging industry backfired. A year after the ceremony in Buchanan, a cable from the State Department to the embassy in Monrovia declared that Taylor was using the logging profits, along with his earnings in the diamond trade, to fund rebel groups in at least three neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the cable said, Taylor's security forces continued to exterminate his political rivals in Liberia. "What many nations do not understand is that [the logging venture] is without benefit to the Liberian population," the December 2000 cable declared. "Few, if any jobs, are created locally from it. The concessions paid by the timber companies go directly to Taylor."

For more than a year, other African nations had been pressuring Washington to use its influence to force Taylor to stop funding mercenaries in Sierra Leone, and international humanitarian groups were calling for a special United Nations war crimes tribunal similar to those then underway for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The Nigerian foreign minister "reiterated that the key to solving the [Sierra Leone] crisis was to restrain Charles Taylor," wrote a US liaison officer in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, in a February 1999 cable to the State Department. "He urged that the [US government] apply its considerable resources to pressure Taylor to stop his assistance to the rebels."

But in May 2000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, serving as a special envoy for the Clinton administration , visited Taylor and apparently gave him no reason to believe the United States was ready to abandon him. According to a summary of Jackson's meeting in a cable from the Monrovia embassy to the State Department, Taylor raised particular concern about the proposed UN tribunal. "Jackson assured Taylor that the [US government] had not yet taken a position on forming a tribunal," according to the cable. Jackson's "strongest" message to Taylor, in fact, was that the Liberian leader should "take on directly" the "rumors" of his complicity in gun-running, diamond smuggling, and support for mercenaries, the summary of the meeting reported. Meanwhile, waiting outside for a follow-on meeting with Taylor was Sam Bockarie, the head of the rebel group waging war in Sierra Leone, according to the cable. Jackson did not respond to requests for an interview. Myrick did not return messages. Taylor "loved seeing himself as a slickster," said a former US intelligence operative in West Africa who agreed to speak about Taylor on the condition of anonymity. "And he loved fooling the Americans and always running a game on us."

Ready to take on Taylor

By December 2000, a month before leaving office, the Clinton State Department finally seemed ready to take on Taylor. In a cable marked for "immediate" attention, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote to the embassy in Monrovia that Taylor was "in a category by himself" as "a cunning and effective warlord whose brutal rule terrorizes millions in Liberia and Sierra Leone."

Other diplomatic cables during the changeover in administrations reflect growing alarm about Taylor. According to a May 2001 cable from the embassy to the State Department, one US informant -- whose name was blacked out by State Department censors -- characterized Taylor as a "dangerous and erratic mad man." Another cable raised the prospect that Taylor was "suicidal." But the new Bush administration remained as willing to tolerate Taylor's denials as the Clinton team had been, according to the cables.

In November 2001, Talal Eldine, a close Taylor associate who was identified by a UN panel the year before as Taylor's "paymaster to diamond and arms traffickers," according a cable, visited the embassy in Monrovia. Eldine told the ambassador that he would "do anything the embassy asks" and denied involvement in any illicit activities, the embassy reported back to Washington. Almost a year later, amid a flurry of new allegations about Taylor's complicity in war crimes, the US government still did not appear to think the situation was urgent.

When in August 2002 the Mexican government proposed that the United States lead an international effort to ensure elections were held to replace Taylor, a cable from the State Department instructed the UN ambassador to tell the Mexicans that the United States was "continuing to review next steps forward."

As late as December 2002, a few months before Taylor was indicted by the UN special court, P. Michael McKinley, deputy assistant secretary of state, met with Taylor in a late-night session at the executive mansion to talk about the refugee problem in West Africa -- a situation created in large part by Taylor. McKinley told Taylor that "Washington places great importance on Liberian cooperation with regional peace initiatives and welcomes [Taylor's] assertions that he has no intention of pursuing actions beyond his own borders," according to the cable.

Shortly after McKinley's visit, the UN special court for Sierra Leone became a reality. One of its first moves was to issue its sweeping indictment of Taylor, which was dated in March 2003. In August, when the indictment was unsealed, President Bush called for Taylor to step down. "Charles Taylor needs to leave because Charles Taylor is the problem," declared Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, in 2003. "And Charles Taylor is, by the way, not just a problem for Liberia, he's a problem for the region."

The United States persuaded the Nigerian government to offer exile to Taylor as a way of removing him from power. Taylor lived in Nigeria for nearly three years as a fugitive from the UN court. In 2006, Bush persuaded the Nigerian government to arrest Taylor and send him to the UN tribunal in The Hague.

Now, specialists can only wonder if the United States could have forced Taylor from power sooner. "There could have been a much more robust role before we got to 2003," said Elwood Dunn, a political science professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., who is writing a book about relations between the United States and his native Liberia. The United States was "just going to wait [Taylor] out -- that was the policy, if one can call that a policy," Dunn said. "There were those with very different views, but the US decided 'we will just play the game.' " Cook also said the Clinton and Bush administrations could have been tougher on Taylor, but he noted that "they had little choice but to interact with him as a major player in Liberian politics."

Nonetheless, Chester Crocker, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan administration, said the State Department took far too long to decide Taylor was simply unredeemable. "What I found astonishing was how long it took to figure out Taylor was a considerable threat," he said.

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