By Peter BeinartNew Republic
June 23, 2003
Last week, as civil war engulfed their capital, thousands of desperate Liberians besieged the U.S. Embassy. "Take action now in Liberia to end war as they have in Iraq," implored one man, according to the Associated Press. "Send the Marines to guard us," cried a student. But the Marines stationed on the embassy roof did not venture onto Liberian soil. Had people in the United States or Europe noticed, they might have found the scene a little jarring. In Europe, the United States is reviled as an imperialist bully, promiscuously intervening in smaller nations. In the United States, Western European countries are scorned as unwilling to ensure security and defend freedom in the ugly, dangerous corners of the globe. And, from an Iraq-centric perspective, those stereotypes make sense.
But consider the view from Liberia. To the west is Sierra Leone. In 2000, with limb-amputating rebels converging on the capital, Britain sent 2,500 troops to save its former colony from catastrophe. Two years later, a democratically elected government rules a united country, 500,000 people have returned to their homes, the rebels have been vanquished, and a war-crimes tribunal pursues their leaders.
To the east is Cí´te d'Ivoire. In 2002, rebels took up arms against the government, waging a four-month insurgency that cut the country in half. France sent 2,500 peacekeepers to its former colony to enforce a cease-fire. Then it sequestered government and rebel leaders outside Paris until they agreed to a French plan for a national unity government.
Compare that with what the United States has done--or not done--in Liberia. Liberia is as American as Cí´te d'Ivoire is French or Sierra Leone British. Founded in 1847 by returning American slaves, Liberia's flag resembles the Stars and Stripes. Its capital, Monrovia, is named for America's fifth president. During the cold war, it was America's closest West African ally. Yet the United States, which pledges to bring security and liberty to a vast new sphere of influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, has done nothing of the sort in Liberia, a sphere of U.S. influence for 150 years.
The story of America's post-cold-war abandonment of Liberia begins in September 1990, when the country's president, American ally Samuel Doe, was murdered. A rebel leader named Charles Taylor, already renowned for his brutality, was poised to overrun Monrovia, and many Africans expected the United States to intervene. "We could not understand how the U.S., with its long-standing relationship with Liberia, could remain so aloof," noted Nigeria's then-ambassador in Monrovia. But the United States did remain aloof, even though Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen would later admit that "modest U.S. intervention at that point to end the fighting in Monrovia could have avoided the prolonged conflict." Instead, Nigeria and other West African states sent their own--ill-equipped and undisciplined--troops to fight Taylor. After battling for six years with minimal U.S. help, the West African peacekeepers gave up, leaving Taylor free in 1997 to "win" an election for president of a country his troops already largely controlled. (Taylor's child soldiers chanted an unusual campaign slogan: "He killed my pa. He killed my ma. I'll vote for him.")
The takeover was a calamity not only for Liberia but for the entire region. Taylor, who had funded his child army by illegally smuggling diamonds from mines across the border in Sierra Leone, helped create a Sierra Leonian proxy called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which specialized in chopping off arms, lips, and hands. British troops eventually prevented an RUF takeover of the country, but Taylor didn't limit his interventions to Sierra Leone. He helped sponsor the rebels that plunged once-stable Cí´te d'Ivoire into civil war and fomented uprisings in Guinea and Burkina Faso as well.
Cí´te d'Ivoire and Guinea retaliated by sponsoring rebel groups in Liberia, with the result that, today, transnational war rages across no fewer than five West African states. In Liberia, in a strange replay of what happened in 1990, various rebel groups have now captured most of the country, with Taylor's government controlling only Monrovia. With multi-faction street-fighting breaking out near the capital and dead bodies piling up on the streets, observers are once again calling on the United States to act. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) practically begged the United States to lead a peacekeeping force capable of enforcing a cease-fire, making Taylor step down, and overseeing a new national unity government. "While two permanent members of the Security Council, the U.K. and France, play prominent roles in the closely connected peace processes in Sierra Leone and the Cí´te d'Ivoire respectively," the ICG wrote, "no one has taken the lead on Liberia. The missing link is the United States." And that link is still missing. When President Bush sent 35 American troops to Monrovia last week, he explained that they were there "solely for the purpose of protecting American citizens and property." The United States isn't even leading the cease-fire negotiations between Taylor and the rebels, leaving that to hapless envoys from the United Nations and Liberia's West African neighbors.
What are the lessons of America's abdication? First, that for all its Wilsonian rhetoric about global freedom, the Bush administration's overall human rights record is no better than that of its European allies. The White House may say it invaded Iraq to rescue a suffering people, but, in countries that lack oil and a strategic location, rescuing suffering people still falls into the reviled Clintonian category of "foreign policy as social work." Afghanistan, one might think, would have alerted the Bushies to the national security consequences of allowing poor, remote countries to descend into anarchy. Evidently not. Charles Taylor--surprise!--has harbored members of Al Qaeda, who use his diamond-smuggling operation to launder money.
Second, if the Bush administration isn't prepared to save countries like Liberia, perhaps its supporters could at least stop lecturing Europe about our morally superior foreign policy. Explaining his government's intervention in Cí´te d'Ivoire, France's much-loathed Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said recently, "France accepts its responsibilities." Can the Bush administration look at Liberia, America's brutalized, abandoned West African stepchild, and say the same?
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