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The Bright Continent By: Gregory Gethard
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, July 24, 2009

The Bush administration’s policy of regime change has been much maligned in recent years, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan adduced as evidence of its failure. Little attention, however, has been paid to an area of the world where the so-called “Bush Doctrine” was highly successful: West Africa.

For most of the 1990s, a tiny strip of West Africa was perhaps the worst corner of the world. Liberia and Sierra Leone, two bordering nations, were both embroiled in brutal civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Every imaginable atrocity – systematic rapes, forced slavery, child soldiers, intentional amputations – occurred with terrifying regularity. Most world leaders issued the customary condemnations of the conflicts, but as was the case with the 1994 massacres in Rwanda, very little was actually done to stop them.

Then, in the early part of this decade, both conflicts came to an end. No little credit for that must go to two former world leaders who have fallen out of favor with their respective publics: President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Just ask Charles Taylor, the West African warlord who was the focus point in the conflicts which butchered West Africa. In 1989, Taylor led a group of rebels seeking to depose the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe. Taylor’s war quickly descended into chaos, pitting various ethnic groups against each other. Taylor took power, but rebel organizations tried to depose him. The 14 years of fighting led to 200,000 deaths and close to one million displaced; these numbers are even more staggering when one considers that Liberia’s entire population is less than 3.5 million.

Taylor was not involved in just one war. Neighboring Sierra Leone was also embroiled in civil war. In this case, the main rebel group was known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), regarded as one of the most ruthless armies of its era. The RUF was renowned for not just murdering all who got in its path but for the particularly brutal way in which it dispatched its enemies, hacking off the limbs of survivors with machetes. Many of the RUF’s crimes were committed by mere children, kidnapped from their home and thrown into a life of drug-addled violence, as described by rehabilitated child soldier Ishmael Beah in his moving memoir A Long Way Gone. In an article in the Guardian, another child soldier recounted one of his experiences:

"It was fun, like a big boy's game," he says. "They made us so crazy, we enjoyed the smoking, the drinking, the shooting, all that." He didn't enjoy having to cut a man's arm off, though, one morning on the road in from the airport. They were all lined up at gunpoint, the men, shaking, their arms obediently held out. Saidu couldn't look when it was his turn to swing his machete. He doesn't think the man survived. "I can't forget his scream," he says.

Taylor has been accused of providing weapons and financial support to the RUF. In exchange, he wanted access to Sierra Leone’s many resources. Of particular value were the diamond mines located in Sierra Leone’s Kono region, home to some of the most coveted jewels in the world. Once the RUF captured the area, they used slaves to harvest their crop and then sold these “blood diamonds” around the world. Many have said that Taylor didn’t just profit from the sale of diamonds, but he was the mastermind behind their exchange. It has also been alleged that al-Qaeda had done business with Taylor in a fundraising campaign where the terrorist group purchased diamonds in order to resell in its part of the world.

The earliest days of the Sierra Leone conflict began in 1991; Liberia’s started two years earlier. For over a decade, the rest of the world turned a blind eye to West Africa, just as they had in Rwanda in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 were killed within three months. There was talk of sanctions of stern warnings from the international community. In 1999, the United Nations even created a special “peacekeeping force” in order to help quell the violence in Sierra Leone but the UN’s efforts were toothless. The RUF took over 300 of the UN’s peacekeepers hostage, holding them hostage in a jungle where many contracted malaria.

In May of 2000, with RUF forces nearing Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, Tony Blair decided to send 1,000 British troops the beleaguered nation. This was done largely to rescue foreign nationals trapped in the city, but British troops did much more. They managed to secure the area and a nearby airport, which allowed for more UN troops to enter the country. That in turn repulsed the RUF. Eventually, a truce was declared and the RUF laid down its arms.

But a major problem remained. Charles Taylor was still in power in Liberia, which was in the midst of its brutal conflict. Once again, most of the world said the right thing but did little. The United Nations charged Taylor with war crimes for his involvement in Sierra Leone. Calls were made for him to step down. Taylor remained in power.

No change occurred until George W. Bush, only a handful of weeks after US troops toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, demanded that Taylor step down. Initially defiant, Taylor caved after US military specialists started to investigate ways to enter the country on its own peacekeeping mission. On August 20, 2003, Taylor finally stepped down. As a reminder of who forced his ouster, some 2000 marines were waiting in ships just off of Liberia’s coast.

Taylor, who has since been apprehended and jailed, is now standing trial for his alleged war crimes. In his first remarks in his hearing, he blamed his political demise on President Bush’s “regime change politics.”

Taylor’s ouster was not the Bush administration’s only success in Africa. Soon after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi announced that Libya would give up its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, in an attempt to combat HIV in Africa, Bush launched the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The campaign was a success. The president of the International AIDS Society recently said that HIV infections were down in countries served by the program.

But it is Bush’s regime change policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported by former Prime Minister Blair, that will be most remembered for in West Africa. On his arrival in Sierra Leone on his farewell tour from office, Blair was named by Sierra Leone’s 149 paramount chiefs, local leaders who have great influence in the country, as one of their own. Said one chief, "We have nothing, no money to give him but it is a way of recognizing him as a chief of our nation." Another example of Sierra Leone’s enduring affection for Blair comes from journalist Augustus Kamara, who named his son after the Prime Minister.

 Liberians feel the same about Bush. On the eve of his arrival in Liberia in 2008, one organization released a musical album in his honor. And, as one Liberian blogger wrote on the eve of Bush’s departure from office:

“When President Clinton had a chance to save thousands of people in Rwanda during the 90s he refused to get involve, calling it an African Problem, and because of America and the world's inaction almost a million people die in the Rwanda Genocide.

Bush on the other hand got involved in Africa like no other president before him, he demanded that the Tyrant Charles Taylor leaves office and send U.S soldiers to help stabilized the country, and in the process ending almost 2 decades of civil war that left the country in a state of total ruin.

He called Sudan's military actions in Darfur, Genocide when most African and European countries refused to call it so.

Whatever his critics in the Liberal media say, President Bush, unlike any other U.S. Presidents, changed dramatically the way the United States dealt with Africa and her problems.

Farewell Mr President you were a great friend of Africa, may God bless you and your family as you end this chapter of your life and begin a new one.”

Bush and Blair’s attempts to build democracies around the world continue to be frowned upon by the political and media elite. But that assessment suffers from a serious blind spot. Ten years ago, West Africa was the home of mass death and political upheaval. Today, it is a land of hope.

Gregory Gethard is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.

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