Liberating Liberia

Posted: Jul 12, 2003 12:00 AM
BLACK BUTTE, Ore. -- It was a typical American picnic table conversation, only with a better view: Behind us the snow-clad peaks of the Sisters mountain range framed towering Ponderosa pines. Before us, though, the question of war created another sort of cleavage.

"There were no weapons of mass destruction!" "Stable democracy in the Mideast? Forget about it." "But what happens if terrorists get nuclear weapons?"

My close family members now span both coasts and two oceans, stretching from India to New York through Oregon and Washington and on to Japan. So the conversation was lively and the viewpoints diverse.

"People in Japan cannot understand why President Bush did it," one member of the Tokyo contingent explained. War, suffering, instability. What was the threat? What was the point? "But the Japanese people may want help with North Korea, so they did not object so strongly."

To listen to some people, the world hates America. Old Europe in particular is appalled and dismayed by America's colossal military power, our insistence on national and not international sovereignty, the uncertainty created by our alternating moralistic fervor and inward-looking, amoral indifference to world affairs.

But the truth is more complicated: The world has a love-hate relationship with American military might. They worry -- who wouldn't? -- about a ferocious capacity they do not control, but at the same time they long to make use of American power.

Witness Kofi Annan's recent call for the United States to lead a military intervention in Liberia, a once (relatively) prosperous country torn by civil war and atrocities. At the moment, the credibility of the United Nations hinges on the willingness of America to lend the use of our power.

Old Europe, which has set itself up as the moral arbiter of international institutions, surely has the military might to handle peacekeeping in war-ravaged Liberia. What it lacks is not just the will but the credibility. A few thousand peacekeepers can keep the peace only when bloody warlords believe that, if necessary, the troops will turn into full-fledged combatants, backed by fellow soldiers willing to fight and die and kill. When the chips are down will Dutch or French peacekeepers risk their lives to defend African refugees from brutal slaughter? The world has learned not to count on it.

So for so many oppressed people around the world, American power remains the only realistic hope. "The only people who can bring decency to Liberia are the Americans," as James A.B. Brown, a Monrovian refugee, told The Associated Press.

"Once America steps in, the process will be smooth and simple; the nightmare will end," said another Monrovian resident, Stephen Scott.

Americans, too, are ambivalent about American power. Our military might was born not of some aristocratic will to power but of deep-seated American virtues: a powerhouse economy built on freedom, creativity, entrepreneurship; a profound and, to jaded Euros, naive patriotism; a commitment to our own national story and national institutions that (unlike Europe's) have proved themselves spectacularly worthy of respect over 200 years.

But the characteristics that built the American empire make us particularly ill-suited to running one: Unlike the Romans, the American people have little interest in empire-running. We love our military might because we love our country, not the other way around. There is something both disturbing and endearing about a superpower whose people would prefer following the latest Kennedy scandal to military glory.

The truth is America will continue to be drawn into conflict all around the globe, because the world will insist on it. And the world will hate us, both for intervening and refusing to intervene. Get used to it.