The Liberia waiting game

Can the Bush administration bring itself to commit U.S. troops in Africa on purely humanitarian grounds?

By Laura McClure

Published July 25, 2003 11:39PM (EDT)

On Monday, bereft Liberians deposited 18 corpses in front of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia -- the bodies of loved ones caught in the crossfire of Liberia's civil war. The protest aimed to dramatize the cost of the Bush administration's weeks of wavering on whether to send in troops to quell the latest round of fighting.

Although President Bush has promised to come to Liberia's aid once the conditions of a regional peace agreement are met, the United Nations has called upon the United States to send in a small peacekeeping force now. In the meantime, 4,500 U.S. troops are waiting for orders off the Liberian coast.

"What more do you need to see?" one protester screamed into a CNN camera on Monday. So far the American answer remains "More than this."

If the United States regularly and consistently intervened around the globe anytime innocents were being slaughtered, the Marines would already be in Liberia. But there are deadlier wars in Africa clamoring for humanitarian intervention. And despite the idealistic rhetoric offered to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, both the Bush administration and foreign policy circles are at best divided on whether the United States should ever commit its troops for humanitarian reasons alone. With American forces already stretched thin by Iraq and Afghanistan, some experts question the wisdom of sending additional troops to a nation that presents no immediate security risk.

But Liberians have a unique reason to ask for American help: Liberia was founded by black Americans. And more and more now see the lack of U.S. involvement as nothing less than a betrayal of kinship.

"There are strong family ties dating back to the early 19th century," says Denise Barrett, Liberian country director for the humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps. "Liberians look up to Americans to help them through this process."

Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves and freeborn black American landowners, and they brought with them some of the baggage of Southern culture. Once in Liberia they built plantations and excluded the indigenous Africans from voting or holding office, considering them to be "uncivilized." Evidence of the original American influence is still widespread, from the capital Monrovia, named after U.S. president James Monroe, to the architecture. Monrovia still has "a feeling of the deep South," says Barrett.

Until recently, Liberia's presidents have been members of the elite who trace their heritage back to the United States. This changed in 1980, when the indigenous Liberian Samuel K. Doe took power in a bloody coup. The U.S. threw its support behind Doe, using Liberia to counter Soviet-backed countries in Africa. During the 1980s, Liberia received millions of dollars in American aid, despite widespread corruption and a dismal human rights record.

But with the end of the Cold War came the end of American policy interests in Liberia. From the day that U.S.-educated warlord Charles Taylor took power in 1989 until now, America has essentially turned its back on the nation, though outbreaks of civil war have plagued the country the entire time. "When Taylor was elected, I think they kind of gave up on Liberia," says Barrett.

Today, calls for American involvement have risen again, not just from Liberians but also from the international community. Such calls increased as President Bush traveled through Africa while rebel forces closed in on Monrovia and the war's humanitarian disaster deepened. Many of those wounded by rocket shrapnel are women and children, and areas of Monrovia have run out of food and water. In a peace deal sponsored by the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Taylor, indicted in June for war crimes in Sierra Leone, agreed to leave the country and the rebels agreed to a cease-fire. To date, neither of these has happened, and attacks on the capital have grown deadlier by the day. While Nigeria has promised to send a force of 1,300 within the next two weeks, Liberians are calling for U.S. intervention now. According to Jeremy Weinstein of the Brookings Institution, "There's never been a clearer moment than in the last four weeks for the U.S. to intervene."

Supporters of intervention suggest that there might be something in it for the United States, after all. "You can't just carry a big stick all the time," says Mark Burgess, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information. A swift response to the crisis in Liberia "could see a few thousand American troops do more to raise America's standing internationally than the 150,000 or so currently deployed in Iraq."

There's evidence that a team of 2,000 Marines would be enough to control the situation in Liberia, according to Weinstein of the Brookings Institution: The British in Sierra Leone and the French in the Ivory Coast both showed "that a small crack force could actually achieve something ... This is an opportunity to intervene and succeed."

The Bush administration's arguments on behalf of the freedom and well-being of the Iraqi people are still fresh in the public mind, some advocates of intervention point out. "Put your money where your mouth is," says Burgess of Bush. "If the humanitarian argument was good in Iraq, it's surely more so in Liberia."

But there are plenty of observers who, like Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, dismiss the humanitarian argument entirely. "I'm frustrated with this administration's decision to latch on to the humanitarian justification in Iraq," he says. The United States, he argues, should never fight wars purely for humanitarian reasons, but rather only where there is an alignment of national security concerns and humanitarian concerns.

Liberia, he says, fails that test. "It goes back to the whole host of interventions conducted during the 1990s [Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo] that had nothing to do with national security," he says. To intervene in Liberia "would open the floodgates to future humanitarian issues all over the world."

And then there are other experts who argue that, though Liberia may need help, it should come from Africans themselves. "It's not what American leaders need to do, it's what African leaders need to do," says Ghanaian professor George B.N. Ayittey, who teaches African history at American University in Washington, D.C. "When the international community obliges these African leaders, it simply allows them to abdicate their responsibility. Enough of this. We need to put pressure on ECOWAS instead of making excuses for them."

If ECOWAS does indeed send in troops and force Taylor to leave the country within the next two weeks, that may be enough to persuade the Bush administration to send in a contingent of Marines to help. "Americans could have a major impact," says Barrett of Mercy Corps. "The Liberians look up to America as their father and their mother."

Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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