Published July 16, 2003
During his current trip to sub-Saharan Africa, which wisely does not include Liberia, President Bush is pondering whether to send U.S. troops to Liberia to enforce the June 17 cease-fire between forces loyal to President Charles Taylor and rebels fighting to oust him. Condoleezza Rice referred to Liberia as one of many “failed states” in that ravaged region. Bush has repeatedly said that Taylor must leave the country. And Nigeria has agreed to extend asylum to Taylor.
Bush has already dispatched a military team to assess the situation in Monrovia, the capital city named after President James Monroe, but Bush is still pondering whether to send a small peacekeeping force to Liberia.
Liberia is a microcosm of the chaos, corruption, and bloodshed of postcolonial Africa. Mobutu looted the mineral-rich Congo, pocketed millions in U.S. aid, and helped precipitate the bloodbath of as many as 5 million people. This catastrophe, plus the tribal slaughter in the Sudan, Nigeria, and elsewhere recalls an apt African proverb: “The tears of a stranger are only water.”
Compared to the likes of Mobutu, Charles Taylor is a tinhorn dictator. Liberia’s civil violence was precipitated by Taylor’s “election” as president in 1997. But in a tragic and ironic sense he is OUR man running OUR colony.
The UN Secretary General, several West African regimes, and their former colonial rulers, including France, have offered to send peace-restoring forces to Liberia and have urged Washington to take the lead in such an effort, precisely because of our long-standing “special relationship” to what is sometimes called our “first colony” or “our only colony in Africa.”
Liberia was founded in 1847 for the noblest of motives, as a safe place where former American slaves could live in freedom and dignity. At the same time, the experiment was the product of misplaced guilt and utopian sentiments. Consequently, Washington chose not to treat Liberia as a colony along with the responsibilities for civil order that such a relationship entailed. Had we done so, we could have fostered the rule of law and economic development and curbed corruption as we did during our brief stewardship in the Philippines.
As the story unfolded, we treated Liberia with a combination of hubris and paternalism, which might be seen as a 19th century version of “affirmative action.” In 1865, Frederick Douglass denounced this patronizing stance of white do-gooders: “Do nothing with us,” he pleaded. “All I ask, give [the Negro] a chance to stand on his own legs. Let him alone!” Americans failed to heed his words then, but it is not too late to right an ancient wrong.
Acting too little and to late, we failed to staunch the bloodbath in Rwanda and Burundi or provide adequate humanitarian aid to millions of refugees. But today, restoring stability and civic order to Liberia and its immediate neighbors is far less formidable task. Eschewing lofty goals like nation-building and restoring democracy (which have clouded our occupation of Iraq) and embracing more modest objectives, such as stability and civil order, we can achieve a minimal degree of civic order that will permit the slower and more arduous disciplines of state building to take root. And we can achieve these realistic goals in a relatively short time.
Further, the temporary effort required to establish minimal stability, the prerequisite to justice and the rule of law, would require only a tiny portion of the effort required to achieve the same limited objectives in Iraq.
Such occasional and brief interventions by France and Britain in their former West Africa colonies have done much to stabilize the situation and prepare the way for the more arduous disciplines of state building to take root.
Senegal, which Bush has already visited, is an apt example of this cooperation between the former metropolitan power and the fledgling new state.
President Bush should authorize a modest U.S. peace-restoring force of 2,000 to 5,000 troops to lead a coalition of small forces from West Africa states and token forces from France and Britain.