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What Do We Owe Liberia? By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 14, 2003


Liberia is a mess. As usual we are being blamed for the mess. The reason Liberia is a failed state? It's the United States' neglect. That is the expressed opinion of Liberian president Charles Taylor, and there are many in the United States and elsewhere who share Taylor's premise that Washington is somehow responsible, at least morally, for Liberia's predicament, and hence somehow obliged to fix it, by sending troops there.

We are being told that, since Liberia was established by freed American slaves more than a century and a half ago (in 1847), America remains responsible for its fate, a paternalistic but convenient position. Not surprisingly, such claims come from the very same U.S. liberals (along with the Moravian mobs) who opposed the Iraq intervention but strongly pushed for the use of the Marines in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti - in short, everywhere some mushy "humanitarian" cause popped up, but not where the security and national interests of this country were clearly involved. Marines as social workers are fine, but Marines as Marines are proof of American imperialism.

It is useful to review the actual history of Liberia's founding. Quakers, who were skeptical of America's ability to fully integrate liberated slaves, and Southern slave holders, who were disturbed by the "bad example" of free slaves in their midst, combined to find a solution by relocating them to Africa, as if that were some homogeneous and unified place all blacks came from and any part of it would do. They followed the precedent of the British, who dumped slaves found on trading ships captured by their Navy on the west coast of Africa, in what has recently became both Liberia's victim and fellow failure, Sierra Leone.

At the time, nobody in official Washington considered Liberia a "moral obligation," and indeed the United States did not even recognize the country until after the American Civil War, and with good reason. The behavior of the transplanted former American slaves was already nothing to be proud of, and it got worse with the time. As Liberian columnist Tarty Teh put it,

'These returned slaves kept us, African Liberians, as field slaves for well over 130 years in the land of our ancestors. For nearly a century and a half they gradually promoted us into the rough equivalent of house slaves when they domesticated a few of us by helping us sport such names as George Washington, Robert Kennedy, George Wallace, etc., as our new identities and as testimony of our acquired elegance. But the bulk of us remained Africans because we could not help it. For daring to remain Africans we, in the eyes of the ruling Americos, forfeited our rights to any aspiration beyond being tolerated by the snobbish descendants of ex-slaves." (Tarty Teh, "Liberia Is Being P.U.S.H.ed by Rev. Jesse Jackson," May 24, 2000, http://members.aol.com/csiedit/liberia_is_being_push.htm).

Indeed, the small American-Liberian elite established what amounted to official apartheid for the duration of its rule, which lasted up to 1980. Native tribal blacks, always a huge majority, were treated as obviously inferior, remained uneducated and poor, were often sold as de facto slaves ("contract laborers") to plantations in Spanish Guinea (now Equatorial Guinea) and only received the right to vote in 1946, ninety-nine years after independence. From the late 1860s until 1980 Liberia was a one-party state, under the True Whig Party. Seen in this context, Liberia's mimicking the American flag, using the American dollar, and naming its capital, Monrovia, after James Monroe, appear more as insults to Americans than a cause for emotional and historic fellowship.

And then, in 1980, the oppressed tribals had their revenge: a coup led by the illiterate Sergeant Major Samuel Doe captured and shot President William Tolbert and his cabinet members. Following a by-then rich African tradition represented by the likes of Idi Amin, Jean Bedel Bokassa and Macias Nguema, Doe gave himself phony titles, including "doctor," and misruled the country until other tribes rebelled. In 1990 Doe was captured, mutilated, and murdered - all on videotape.

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor, educated in part (and jailed) in Boston, escaped prison and obtained the support of Moammar Ghadafi and his regional proxy, the leader of one of the world's smallest and poorest nations, Burkina Fasso, and made his own bid for power. By 1997 he has killed or intimidated enough people to be "elected" president. In no time at all he had invented "opposition groups" in neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast - and cashed in diamonds and other booty. None of this, naturally enough, prevented the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson from visiting Taylor and treating him as a long-lost brother.

But Taylor overextended himself, and his neighbors realized that his was a game that others could play as well. Guinea, with American support, and Ivory Coast, with French support, encouraged, armed, and paid some of the masses of unemployed young Liberian refugees in their territories to go back, and soon a number of anti-Taylor "national" and "democratic" organizations had appeared, who are now cornering Taylor in the capital. Meanwhile, a UN-sponsored tribunal in Sierra Leone has indicted Taylor for crimes against humanity - an indictment that does not seem to impress the government of "Africa's giant," Nigeria, the self- proclaimed regional power, which offered him a comfortable and safe asylum. Nor did it prevent the Rev. Pat Robertson from making deals with Taylor and from realizing that the latter's Baptist faith (?) gives all Baptists a bad name.


This is the "country" we are supposed to have a moral obligation to and to which we are asked to send troops to restore a "democracy" that never existed, the power of a corrupt and by now largely dead or emigrated American-Liberian elite? A country with no institutions, no sense of nationhood, no infrastructure, no limit to its needs or, worse still, to the exaggerated expectations of a destitute and chaotic population? If the Haiti intervention was a failure, an intervention in Liberia would be a tragedy, and for similar reasons. Where there is no country and there are no citizens or institutions , no amount of Marines or dollars can invent them.

If the newly established African Union wants to be taken seriously, it should prove that it is capable of doing something for and in Liberia , rather than spend its energies debating whether the AU parliament should be located in Capetown or Tripoli. The British have temporarily stabilized Sierra Leone, which should remain "stable" as long as the paratroopers stay there and not one minute longer. The French are doing the same in Ivory Coast, with similar short-term success. Whatever Paris and London's reasons for deciding to get into the swamps of their former colonies, their actions do not mean that Washington has to do the same in a place that, far from being a former American colony, was a caricature of America.

President Bush should make it clear that Liberia is not a place of national interest for the United States, that we have no moral or other obligation toward it, and that no commitment of American lives should be expected, only possibly some (very) temporary logistical and financial support for an African or UN force. As a good Texan would put it, the US does not have a dog in the Liberian fight.

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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