At Large

Why We Are Going to Liberia

We have no other choice, if only to correct liberal policy failures.

By 7.28.03

Send to Kindle

The killing goes on in Liberia, but help is on the way. The White House announced on Friday that two ships from a naval amphibious force should be off the coast of that beleaguered country in about a week. A third ship will be a few days behind. The ships are carrying 2,300 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, although what they will do when they arrive is unclear. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on "Fox News Sunday" that the U.S. wanted to "to stabilize the situation" in Liberia, but he stopped short of committing the Marines to forcible intervention. "They are going in," he said, "when there is a cease-fire, when [Liberian president] Charles Taylor is leaving, has left."

But as ambiguous as this may be, it is at least a start. The U.S. had to do something about Liberia, and in dispatching the amphibious force, President Bush followed his own humanitarian instincts, and over-ruled the know-nothing wing of his own party. Liberia, of course, has a long-standing U.S. connection. It was founded by freed American slaves, and it has always thought of itself as an unofficial American colony. The Firestone company ran the country for years, and during the Cold War the CIA used it as a base. Liberia was our most dependable African ally.

Liberia's problems, however, have been festering for years, and there have been many missed opportunities to solve them. The game now, though, especially among liberals, is to deny any responsibility for policy failures. Liberia has become a political football. As Susan Rice, once the utterly feckless secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, told the New York Times:

"I'm becoming increasingly cynical. The dithering and delaying, particularly after raising expectations in Liberia and throughout Africa and in the international community, is bordering on the criminally irresponsible."

Ms. Rice's chutzpah here is breathtaking. As a National Security Council official, before she became an assistant secretary of state, she was, if not responsible, at least complicit, in a Clinton administration policy that helped lead to 800,000 or more deaths in Rwanda. Then, as assistant secretary, she applauded the agreement in Sierra Leone that gave Charles Taylor's proxies, the murderous RUF rebels, control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Clinton's special envoy to Africa, helped broker the agreement. Taylor, incidentally, once asked that Jackson be appointed U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

Liberia, in fact, has attracted, and still attracts, numerous frauds, charlatans and con men. The Rev. Al Sharpton announced a few weeks ago that he and Cornel West were going to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to help bring about peace. Actually they never got any closer than Ghana, but no matter. Standing outside the Liberian U.N. mission on Friday, Sharpton played the race card. "This administration's policy is different, absolutely different, when it comes to people of color," he said. "I can't imagine that there wouldn't be intervention in Europe if thousands were dying in war."

Rep. Donald Payne, the main spokesman on Africa for the Congressional Black Caucus, is also playing the race card. Racism, he says, is at the bottom of the administration's failure to intervene so far in Liberia. Payne's chutzpah here is a match for Ms. Rice's and then some. Payne was once Charles Taylor's great champion in Congress, even though in his march to power in Liberia Taylor pioneered in the use of child soldiers, while he murdered a great many people.

Meanwhile as Payne, Sharpton and others play the race card, Taylor plays the Jesus card. Pat Robertson supports him. Robertson says this has nothing to do with his gold-mining venture with Taylor's government; it has to do with Taylor's supposedly deep faith. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network once reported that Taylor told Liberians, "I am not your president, Jesus is." At the same time, Robertson has insisted, weirdly and without foundation, that Christian Liberia is under attack by its Muslim neighbors.

But in fact, Taylor has been fomenting violence and supporting rebels in other countries, not only Sierra Leone, but Guinea and the Ivory Coast as well, for some time now. Indeed the virtual certainty that one way or another he will now fall from power and no longer assist the rebels may already have had some effect. The civil war in the Ivory Coast has ended, and the civil war in Guinea seems to be waning. Taylor is causing less mischief in West Africa now than before.

No one can be sure what will happen next in Liberia, although certainly there are grounds for hope. The appearance of U.S. ships off its coast is likely to have an effect. In mid-June, when negotiations between Taylor's government and the rebels were at a critical point, the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, turned up off the West African coast, charged with aiding the possible evacuation of American citizens from Liberia. Its mere appearance was instrumental in persuading the rebels and Taylor's government, especially Taylor's government, to sign a peace agreement. But after only three days the Kearsarge was ordered back to Norfolk, Virginia, and when it sailed away the peace agreement collapsed. The fighting and dying in Liberia continued.

Negotiations are going on now in Ghana between U.S. and Nigerian officials on the terms for deploying two Nigerian battalions, some 1,300 troops, to Liberia for peacekeeping duties. Nigeria is asking for logistical support, and this time it is likely to get it. When it conducted peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, it did so without U.S. assistance. Nigeria had a military government, and the Black Caucus and its liberal allies, misinformed, as always, on African matters, were adamant: They did not want to aid Nigeria.

Consequently Nigeria went into Liberia and Sierra Leone on its own. Some 700 Nigerian soldiers then lost their lives in Sierra Leone; many others died in Liberia. At the same time, the peacekeeping operations reportedly cost Nigeria some $8 billion.

So Nigeria is now saying never again; it is demanding help, and in the absence now of liberal objection, help will be forthcoming. Indeed liberals now support some kind of U.S. intervention in Liberia, and the resistance is coming from knee-jerk myopic conservatives: Liberia has no strategic importance, and U.S. forces are already stretched thin, and so on.

But on July 17, according to AllAfrica.com, a reliable and unbiased source of African news, a Special Forces major, Roger Carstens, turned up at the American Enterprise Institute and made a case for U.S. involvement in Liberia. AEI, good conservative think tank that it is, opposes intervention or involvement. But Carstens, who was speaking in a private and not an official capacity, said U.S. "interests and values match" in Liberia, and that if the U.S. intervened to help end the fighting it would also "strike a blow in the war on terrorism."

Moreover, he said, "everyone wants us to be there," and "a small number of Special Forces units and a Marine amphibious strike force" could deal effectively with both Taylor's thugs and the rebels. AllAfrica.com did not say whether or not he changed any hearts and minds at AEI, but clearly he had tried.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.