Opting Out of Africa

For Bush, Liberia is not worth the effort

G. Pascal Zachary

Government militia soldiers fire at rebel forces in Monrovia, Liberia.
—Preoccupied with Iraq, can the United States intervene directly in the affairs of a failed African state in order to save lives and build a basis for recovery?

The answer from President George Bush seems to be a resounding “no.” During his recent five-day visit to sub-Saharan Africa, Bush showed a surprising willingness to use American tax dollars to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is hitting black Africa harder than anywhere else in the world. But while endorsing “regime change” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush refuses to do the same in Liberia, a West African country founded by freed American slaves in 1847 that for the past dozen years has been beset by a series of civil wars and incompetent rulers.

Prior to his July visit, Bush demanded that Liberia’s president, Charles Taylor, resign and allow an international force of peacekeepers (presumably to be led by the United States) to occupy and reconstruct the country. When Taylor refused, Bush refused to commit American troops—and in the ensuing weeks, fierce fighting between anti-Taylor forces and the Liberian government have left thousands dead and many more people homeless.

Absent direct intervention by the United States, the carnage in Liberia continues. Negotiations for a settlement between the Liberian government and two rebel groups have bordered on absurd comedy, taking place in a posh hotel in Accra, the capital of neighboring Ghana. Leaders of one rebel group address mediators only in their native Mandingo language. Taylor, who visited Accra recently for what were supposed to be decisive peace talks, arrived in the quiet coastal city to find himself indicted by a U.N. war crimes tribunal. Only with the clandestine assistance of Ghana’s government did Taylor “escape.”

The United Nations, whose Secretary General Kofi Annan is from West Africa, has sought the assistance of a peacekeeping force led by Nigeria. But the planned force is expected to number only 1,000 soldiers under command of a Nigerian general who only arrived in Liberia with a ten-member evaluation team on July 31. Simply transporting the peacekeeping force to Liberia may consume the entire $10 million subsidy offered by the United States to the mission. Nigerians for a decade have sought—and failed—to stem civil wars in West Africa (in Liberia and later, infamously, in Sierra Leone). But only the United States can stabilize Liberia by following a script played out by the British in Sierra Leone and the French in Ivory Coast. Both these former African colonialists have ended civil wars in these countries by putting soldiers on the ground and administrators at the helm of key institutions.

A case can be made that a U.S.-led force would stabilize Liberia. The country is small, English is the official language and the local population appears to be clamoring for American troops. When a U.S. military fact-finding team toured the country in July, they were greeted with cheers. In Sierra Leone, a few thousand British soldiers routed the rebels and ended a decade of disorder. Many think U.S. forces would have the same tonic effect on Liberia, which during the Cold War was a staunch U.S. ally, though today has little economic importance and few links with America.

However, with U.S. soldiers still dying in Iraq, the risks of an African intervention are heightened. Skeptics cite the debacle in Somalia ten years ago, which was immortalized by Hollywood in the film Black Hawk Down. Nineteen U.S. soldiers were killed when a peacekeeping operation went awry.

Even if the United States avoided military stumbles, the problem of reconstruction remains, as Iraq is teaching the Bush administration. “In West Africa there is no successful example of putting a failed state back together again,” says Kwesi Anning, a researcher at the African Security Dialogue Forum, a think tank in Accra.

Nevertheless, U.S. inaction—and the deepening violence in Liberia—has upset many Africans in the region who insist that the American moment to save an African country from itself has passed. “Liberians think of the United States as a friend, but Bush has abandoned us,” says Sam Doe, a Liberian and president of the West African Network for Peacebuilding, based in Accra. “The United States can save Liberia at a minimum cost but it won’t.”

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G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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