No to Liberia

Posted: Jul 11, 2003 12:00 AM

International as well as domestic pressure is building on President Bush to commit American troops to the suffering country of Liberia. For some, such a pure humanitarian intervention would salve the wound of Iraq, in which the United States offended world opinion by pursuing its own national interests.

There is little doubt that tiny Liberia (population 3 million) badly deserves to be saved by someone. A civil war has cost the lives of 200,000. Charles Taylor, former gas station attendant turned strongman, has impoverished the nation, halted all basic services including electricity and water, and lined his own pockets. His opponents are little better, and the region's specialty appears to be machete killings.

Taylor's trademark is the "Small Boy Units," in which children as young as 9 years old are armed with deadly weapons, drugged, and then loosed upon the population to mutilate and murder at will. According to Lisa Hoffman of Scripps Howard News Service: "Many of Taylor's fighters in what he called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia donned women's wigs, painted their fingernails and even wore wedding dresses as they marauded, often accompanied by the blasting of songs by the Temptations and Aretha Franklin. They sometimes anchored decapitated heads on the license plates of their vehicles."

A number of prominent Americans, including the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have been cozy with Charles Taylor. Jackson served as President Clinton's special envoy ("for the Promotion of Democracy") to Africa. During his tour, Jackson was enthusiastic about several African dictators, Taylor among them. According to The New Republic, Jackson "helped pressure the government of Sierra Leone to appease Taylor, and to sign a settlement with the RUF, the Lome accord, that gave the rebels amnesty and invited them into the government. The agreement soon fell apart when the RUF (Taylor's men) took 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage." As for Robertson, he became Taylor's partner in a gold mine and has defended him lavishly in public.

Liberia is a mess that will be difficult to fix, and we're full up with other messes -- namely Afghanistan and Iraq -- to clean up just now.

Our global deployments are already vast. The United States maintains 116,000 troops in Europe (which includes 1,500 in Bosnia and 1,800 in Kosovo), 37,000 in South Korea, 43,000 in Japan, 9,000 in Afghanistan, 150,000 in Iraq and several thousand scattered in places like Egypt, Djibouti and the Philippines. The proposed U.S. force in Liberia would be comparatively small (2,000 to start), but as we saw in Somalia, small deployments can put our people at great risk while failing to achieve the desired humanitarian result.

The only way to make peace in a place like Liberia (or anywhere else for that matter) is to defeat the bad guys. It may be that our deployments to Japan and Western Europe have outlived their usefulness, and we'd be better served to move our troops to more dangerous parts of the globe. But absent such a re-evaluation of our commitments, piling on new ones is not sensible.

It is most heartbreaking to consider the plight of Liberia, and also to reflect that so many nations of the world are scarcely better off. If we intervene in Liberia on purely humanitarian grounds, it seems likely that we will raise impossible hopes in the minds of other oppressed people around the globe. Rescue by American GIs may come to seem a worldwide entitlement.

I take an expansive view of America's role in the world and believe strongly that we should do what we can to promote and facilitate the spread of democracy. And I have elsewhere praised the Bush administration for its initiative in helping Africa to fight the scourge of AIDS. But when Americans are asked to risk their lives, it should only be to protect the interests of the United States. Those interests were very much at stake in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Liberia, they are not. John Quincy Adams said 180 years ago that America was "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

Perhaps someday the world will maintain an all-volunteer force of liberators to save places like Liberia and Burma and Sierra Leone. But that day is not at hand, and the United States cannot range abroad "in search of monsters to destroy."