Unscrambling Liberia

Posted: Jul 22, 2003 12:00 AM
The Liberia squeeze serves political purposes for those who labor to accumulate faults in President Bush's leadership. But some of these are conflicting. Certainly the Democrats will need to straighten out their views on the military and on expeditionary relief.

There is only one reason to refuse intervention in Liberia. It isn't a bad reason, but isolationism -- the presumptive rule against going into a foreign country -- looks squat and provincial and uncaring in such a situation as Liberia's. And then there is the question of military resources. The critics have been playing hard the line that our entry into Iraq has depleted our resources. That's true, and one response to that is to urge a bigger military. But to do that runs up against the general Democratic disposition to downplay the military.

The Democratic critics are up in arms over the projected budget deficit and, in their censure, speak repeatedly about the $4 billion per month that we are spending to maintain the military operation in Iraq. They do not dwell on the $3-plus billion per month envisioned by the prescription-drug bill. But they race quickly to the tax cut, bemoaning the lost revenue when most it hurts, which is in election season.

There is a creeping incoherence in the Democrats' general line, and the Liberian emergency will turn a floodlight on it. We have no national interest in Liberia. It is not alleged that, hidden there, are weapons of mass destruction or storehouses for al-Qaida. The deployment of 18 mutilated bodies outside our embassy is understandably seen as a desperate cry for help. But note, that help would be to provide shelter against one more African faction that, like so many others in recent years, is prepared to kill wholesale in order to steal wholesale and to exercise power. Moreover, the embattled chief is a murderous tyrant whom President Bush exhorted to leave office many corpses ago.

One surmises that Bush et al. are waiting for very hard international pressure to move into Liberia before consenting to do so. We are stung by the denial of peacekeeping troops in Iraq. India arrested a planned deployment of several thousand soldiers there. New Delhi pleads that only if the United Nations passes a resolution endorsing the U.S. presence in Iraq will India feel conscientiously permitted to participate. And the administration, while unwilling to say in as many words that it underestimated the troops that would be necessary to restore order in Iraq and initiate democracy there, scrambles for manpower.

We are prepared to deputize former members of the Iraqi army and give them labor-intensive jobs, like keeping order in the streets and preventing damage to the oil pipelines. We are concealing the shortage of troop reserves by prolonging the stay of soldiers already there. We are maintaining the 148,000-man armed force by prolonging tours of duty. This is not thought, by the administration, a propitious time to say to Congress and to the American people: We need more money, and a larger army.

The challenge, then, is to choreograph what we have got, consistent with responsibilities we can't shake. Iraq is one of these, Liberia is not. But the quandary has to shake out in the next general election.

The catchiest approach to the problem is, of course, U.S. money. We have disbursed it widely, since 9/ll, to maintain support for the war on terror. We spend as much on our military ($400 billion) as the 20 next top-spending nations combined. Russia has the second-largest armed force, but we contribute $150 million, and, of course, great fortunes to Israel and Egypt, and $527 million to Colombia.

The money is spread around, but the terrorists -- whether in the disciplined sense of the al-Qaida agent who takes English lessons and studies flying so that he can efficiently increase the ratio between his suicide and the number of dead Americans, or in the factionalist sense of people who want to kill the other tribesman in order to enhance the tribe's estate -- are all, tangentially, a problem for the organized military. And if it is a Pakistani who engages in peacekeeping activity, that's one less American who is doing it; but they will want us to pay for it, minimum wage.

The great shakeout that will come in 2004 has to confront the questions: (1) Is the United States prepared to intervene in such theaters as Liberia? (2) What is the contingent military cost of waging that peace/protection/benevolence? and (3) How can we share the great-power burden, while husbanding that great-power responsibility we can't shed, and don't want to?