The world cannot just watch as west Africa falls apart, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said last week. But the extraordinarily reluctant way in which the US has been edging toward the commitment of troops to Liberia shows the Bush administration still refusing to accept more than a limited share of responsibility for a country which America both helped to create, in the 19th century, and helped to ruin, in the 20th.
The forces President Bush has put on standby off the coast may not even land, if the units which other west African nations are to send to Liberia prove capable of bringing the fighting to an end on their own. Even if they do set foot in the country, American engagement, one official said, will be limited in ”both space and time”.
The increasingly familiar post-Iraq ironies are all here. On the one hand, because America is losing soldiers at an alarming rate in Iraq, not one American life can, it appears, be risked in Liberia. On the other, the precedent of the Iraq war weighs even with an administration whose basic instincts are strongly anti-interventionist.
On his recent African tour, Bush had to deal directly with the argument that, if Americans can go to war, among other reasons, to rescue Iraqis, then why cannot they undertake a modest deployment to a country with which America has close historical ties, and which is crying out for US help?
On the one hand, the Bush administration believes that coalitions of the willing are the best model for interventions of whatever kind, and that UN involvement, although sometimes useful, is not a necessary condition for action. On the other, in the Liberian case, it has been cooperating with the UN, and working toward the dispatch of a regional peacekeeping force under the UN flag. It will be a force, however, which the US will support, but in which its soldiers will not serve. This position may, superficially, seem similar to that adopted by Britain, whose troops in Sierra Leone have never been part of the UN force there. But the British insisted on that separation so that they could take a more active and combative role, not because they have a UN taboo or so they could shirk the fray.
Whatever the theoretical rights and wrongs, the combination of a UN military presence and an independent expeditionary force has worked so far in Sierra Leone. The French case in Ivory Coast is different again, but still shows the former metropolitan country ready to respond to an emergency in a former colony.
Although the US stands in an essentially similar relationship to Liberia as Britain does to Sierra Leone, and more distantly, as France does to its former colonies in west Africa, it has consistently avoided the duties implicit in that relationship. In spite of its enormous influence there, the US never seriously urged reform on the elite of freed slave families who were Liberia’s settler and ruling class until 1980.
Without much consideration, Washington decided that the brutal and incompetent regime of Samuel Doe which was then installed in Monrovia was not only acceptable, but deserved substantial aid, and that its rigging of elections in 1985 was a step toward democracy.
”Great powers don’t reject their partners just because they smell,” said Chester Crocker, the then assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, quoted in Mark Huband’s book on Africa after the cold war.
As rebels closed in on Doe in 1990, the US did try to persuade him to leave the country, a move which might or might not have helped, and America did encourage and fund — as it is doing today, a west African peacekeeping force. But it never risked its own troops, except in short forays to evacuate Americans or protect the embassy.
America’s interest in Liberia, its would-be leaders, and the troubles of its people had waned as the cold war, during which Liberia had provided a useful base and a dependable vote for US policies in international forums, wound down.
It shrank indeed to the point where the Americans took little notice of the manoeuvring going on to oust Doe, even where an old enemy like Libya was involved, or of the misguided policies of some Francophone west African states. American sins of omission thus played a part in the chain of events which ended with Charles Taylor taking power, inaugurating an even worse era for Liberia and its neighbours.
All the countries affected by events in Liberia had weaknesses which made them vulnerable to the processes of political and social breakdown, encouraged and used by Taylor. These processes essentially began in Liberia and spread from there to affect Sierra Leone, above all, but also eventually Ivory Coast and Guinea, and to draw in Nigeria, Ghana and other regional states in largely futile interventions.
Thus the US bears a degree of responsibility not only for the suffering of Liberians but for the larger west African crisis. What were once relatively stable rural societies in Liberia and Sierra Leone became landscapes of horror, and what might have been manageable rifts between the elites of the coastal cities and the peoples of the interior opened up into civil war. The wrecking of rural society and the destruction of what viable government institutions had survived in the cities went together to produce the enfeebled states of today. It is perfectly proper to argue that the more stable countries in the region and in particular the local superpower, Nigeria, should take a leading role in trying to give failed neighbours a new start. But they have limited resources, problems of their own, and interests of their own. The record shows that they have sometimes worsened rather than improved the situation by the ways in which they have intervened. This surely means that, as Tony Blair has argued, western powers have a part to play, not to repeat the arrogance of the past but if possible to repair it.
The inattention of the US as forces gathered to rid Liberia of Doe was not of course culpable because Doe was worth preserving, but because the succession to him was critical to Liberia’s future and the US might have been able to affect it for the better.
Instead it used Nigeria to keep Charles Taylor from power, and Liberia got the worst of both worlds, both a prolongation of the war and Taylor confirmed as president in the end. Today the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is a coalition of 18 parties in uneasy charge of the troops on the ground.
Even if effective and humane political leaders emerge, however, there is a huge task of physical, social, and psychological reconstruction in which Liberia will need sustained help from outside. America had much to do with the unmaking of this little nation, and, if asked, as it surely will be, should have much to do in its restoration.