The case against nation-building in Liberia

Posted: Jul 11, 2003 12:00 AM

W are hard up on it in the matter of Liberia. The nation-changers see it as one more nation to change and who would vote against a different nation, except for the matter of how to bring it about? The nation-changing program in Iraq is going muddily, and it is good news that the Iraqi guerrillas don't have weapons of mass destruction at hand, but rifle fire and an occasional hand grenade serve their political purposes. They aren't enough to drive the Coalition forces out of the country, but they are enough to give off a Chechnyan smell of perpetual armed resistance.

Three considerations appear to be converging, in the matter of Liberia. The first is pretty unqualified approval of intervention by the United Nations. The second is the warrant issued for the arrest of Charles Taylor as a war criminal. The third is a perceived sense that some singular exertion should be made to do something in black Africa.

The best thing that has happened in very recent years in that part of the world was the willingness of the British, with some help from the French, to send a detachment of soldiers to Sierra Leone to tell them they had to stop chopping off some children's hands and sticking rifles into the hands of others. That form of civil life was something of an endowment by Charles Taylor, who has proudly thought himself the center of revolutionary activity on the west coast of Africa.

Africa is a terrible mess, and the inclination over the years has been to turn one's head away from it, in part because of an accepted sense of futility in trying to do anything about it, in part because there is a suspicion, mostly unexpressed, that black countries simply don't know how to maintain civil democratic order. Oh, we go through the proper formalities. Everybody cheered the day that Ian Smith stepped down and Mugabe stepped up. In the Congo, The Economist puts the figure of dead in fighting at 4.7 million. Oh, and in the Sudan, something over 2 million in two decades. And we all know about Rwanda and Burundi and the l.5 million dead. Abstention presupposes a callused capacity for detachment from this continental gore, as we whistle along, year after year. The figures of African dead amount to many times the loss of Allied troops in the Second World War, and come near to the numbers of the Holocaust. But what we are trained to celebrate is decolonialization. There is little in post-decolonialization to warrant celebration.

President Bush put off a decision to engage in Liberia. He said he wanted "all the facts." What facts are we short of that have a bearing on the challenge at hand? Our nation-building has given us Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The intervention in Haiti, by Mr. Clinton, was a political gesture designed to assure the black community that intervention in behalf of blacks was something the United States was willing to do. Putting down in six nations in Africa, President Bush will have an opportunity to canvass sentiment on a venture into Liberia.

He would do well to jettison, at the outset, any claim to special U.S. obligations to Liberia stemming from our national sponsorship of a free and independent Liberian state in 1847. We are not beholden to Liberia in the sense that the British, French, and Belgians can be thought to be beholden to Rhodesia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and the Congo. To talk about responsibilities traceable to events a century and one-half past gets you into the kind of historical sandpit Clinton got into when he decided to apologize, in Africa, for slavery. Mr. Bush has a pretty clear alternative, which is to say that intervention in Liberia is primarily an African responsibility, and that the Economic Community of West African States in Nigeria must take the lead. The United Nations needs not only a mandate to intervene in Liberia, but needs also to do effective recruiting to bring in the necessary peacekeepers. Their first duty would be to send paratroopers to chop off Charles Taylor's hands, sparing him the humiliation of having to salute his captors.

Yes, of course, the United States should offer a contribution of food, medicine, and peace-corpsmanship. But the endeavor should be thought a black African enterprise, and that is a hefty challenge to the diplomacy of the United States government.