The old hippies at Rolling Stone magazine try once again to get a rise out of us Jesus-folk by running a cover photo of rapper Kanye West in a crown of thorns, beaten and bloodied, as if he were the subject of the Crucifixion. Ho-hum. Back when I was a teenager, Madonna’s Like a Prayer video actually attracted some attention. Today, though, Rolling Stone is going to have to work harder to cause a blasphemous splash—perhaps they could run a cover photo of Jewish shock-comic Sarah Silverman dressed as the Prophet Mohammed, and see if that gets some feedback.
While we’re waiting for hell to freeze over, let’s think about why poor Kanye’s visage is so artfully posed in thoughtful anguish. West, you’ll remember, was that fellow who went off the script during a live Hurricane Katrina fundraiser and extemporized about how “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”
I was thinking about West’s rant the other day when I saw that Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson had been sworn in as the democratically elected President of Liberia. She is the first female president in an African country, and she rises to that position from the ashes of a long and brutal civil war.
It’s good to remember how George W. Bush helped her get there.
Liberia had been a fairly stable and successful nation since it was founded by repatriated American slaves in the 19th century, right up until things went horribly wrong and a civil war broke out between rival warlords—Prince Johnson, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor.
“Civil War” to Americans conjures up images of ranks of blue and butternut uniforms squared off with muskets at Antietam. Liberia’s was different. War is hell, but Liberia’s struggle was distinguished by its insane, surreal brutality. (A thorough, scholarly account of the war and its causes is The Mask of Anarchy by Stephen Ellis.)
I will spare you the hideous details of the war; suffice to say a rotten fellow named Charles Taylor (no relation) ended up in charge, having displaced another warlord/President named Prince Johnson. Prince Johnson had himself come to power upon killing President Samuel Doe, after torturing him and eating his severed ear in front of him.
Before all this Taylor did some time in America, where he earned a degree in economics and went to jail for embezzling Liberian money. (Subsequently he retained a better class of lawyer: along with such humanitarians as Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, and Slobodan Milosevic, Taylor was a client of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.) In 1985 he escaped from a Massachusetts prison and returned to Liberia, where he started the war against Doe on Christmas Eve, 1989. Taylor used legions of child soldiers to fight his battles, adolescents who would fight while bizarrely dressed in wigs and dresses and even toilet seats, often high on amphetamines and marijuana. Rape and ritual cannibalism were tools of oppression regularly employed by the warring militias.
Not only did Charles Taylor do his share in killing well over 250,000 Liberians in the civil war, as well as destabilizing neighboring Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire; it has since emerged that Taylor, according to the Washington Post, was in bed with Al Qaeda:
In 2000, among those operating simultaneously in Liberia under Taylor were: senior al Qaeda operatives; Hezbollah financiers; Victor Bout, an arms merchant who was supplying weapons across Africa and to both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan; Leonid Minin, a Ukrainian-Israeli drug dealer and arms merchant; and Aziz Nassour, the onetime bagman for Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and middleman for al Qaeda and Hezbollah.
It turns out that the promotion of democracy in Liberia was quite demonstrably in our strategic interest as well.
Charles Taylor clung to power until mid-August of 2003, when a Nigerian peacekeeping force was advancing toward Monrovia. And a shipload of U.S. Marines had dropped anchor right offshore. The summer of 2003, of course, was a busy time: it was just as the Iraqi insurgency was kicking up into full swing. Nonetheless, President Bush committed some Marines toward fixing a trouble spot of marginal strategic importance: Liberia.
President Bush offered to send our Marines in to keep the peace and guarantee a settlement, but he imposed a condition. Our troops would not risk their lives to keep any peace which left Charles Taylor in charge. Taylor had to go. And so he did. Today Taylor skulks in exile in Nigeria, under indictment for war crimes. Our troops went in and made sure that another warlord didn’t immediately fill the vacuum Taylor left, and laid the groundwork for democratic elections.
By sending Marines ashore in Liberia, President Bush also put to rest another myth about America’s resolve: that after the 1993 Black Hawk Down tragedy in Mogadishu, America would have nothing more to do with Africa. The experience in Somalia obviously had colored future decisions to intervene in African politics. It had even influenced Osama bin Laden’s assessment of America as a “weak horse.”
Although American troops may not have headed ashore in force until after Taylor agreed to leave, American boots were on the ground well before he fled. A timeline of U.S. troop activity in Liberia shows that a Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team was inserted into Monrovia in late July, while Taylor was still in power. These 41 Marines were in a dangerous spot, alone and unsupported in the middle of a civil war. If things went sour, the Blackhawk Down scenario could easily have repeated itself, especially since Taylor, like Mohammed Farah Aideed, might have consolidated local support to repel an American invasion.
But the situation in Monrovia was very different from the situation in Mogadishu. Any Liberian warlord still doubtful of American resolve in the summer of 2003 now could consider the salutary example of the recently deposed Saddam Hussein. None of them called President Bush’s bluff. At the same time, President Bush bucked pressure to invade outright and throw Taylor out. As it turns out, he didn’t need to. Under the Bush doctrine, doubts about American willingness to intervene in Africa have been resolved.
It would be rash for America and the Bush administration to take too much credit for getting rid of Taylor and restoring democracy to Liberia. Several nations helped win the peace, and the Liberians themselves deserve credit for pulling themselves out of their shambles and setting up a legitimate government. But it is certainly fair to say that American diplomacy and force played a part in driving yet another monstrous dictator from power, and ensuring an orderly transition to democracy. When the roll is called of states where democracy has been obtained under this administration, Liberia ought to be counted, and Charles Taylor ought to be numbered among the dictators who have been toppled.
So “George Bush doesn’t care about black people?” On the contrary. The president took quite a gamble on behalf of the Liberians. Today a democracy stands where chaos stood before, because President Bush acted according to one of his most radical and most noble principles: that men everywhere, regardless of race or religion, want to be free and to govern themselves.
According to the Rolling Stone piece, the bloodied, thorn-crowned Kanye West is fighting a tragic addiction to pornography. I guess we all have our crosses to bear.
Speaking of which, President Sirleaf-Johnson, who isn’t making too many magazine covers, has a few problems of her own as she begins the redemption of a blasted country from the aftermath of a hideous war. One of those problems might be the newly elected senator from Liberia’s Nimba province, a man with a real appetite for politics: former President Prince Johnson.