THE PHOTOS of corpses in the streets of Liberia's capital and news reports with those words so familiar in the New World Order - "warlord," "civil war," "warring tribes" - prompt a gut response in both the U.S. public and U.S. government, "Let's get in the helicopters and just get the heck out." The easiest, obvious policy is to let Liberia die.
Those words, which I wrote to the U.S. State Department eight years ago, could have been written today. All that's changed since then is the name of the president and the names of the dead.
In 1995, at the request of prominent Liberians, I took an unofficial delegation to convey that nation's plea to provide material and U.S. Marines to support a peacekeeping force from other West African states. Then, as now, visions of another Somalia, of another Black Hawk Down, led to our government's deadly hesitation.
This week, as mortar shells burst inside refugee centers, Liberians dropped the bodies of their parents, friends and one headless child at the doorstep of the American Embassy - a ghoulish but apt protest. They are the grim reminders of our culpability in the killings, which goes much deeper than the Clinton and Bush administrations' policy of benign neglect.
Reporters never fail to mention that former American slaves founded Liberia, yet have passed over more recent history: The administration of Ronald Reagan armed the first berserker to seize power in Liberia, setting in motion the current civil war.
Liberia enjoyed a century and a half of democracy and prosperity until 1980, when a low-ranking officer in the presidential guard, Samuel K. Doe, murdered the president, executed the nation's entire Cabinet and declared himself ruler. Within months, the newly inaugurated Ronald Reagan locked down Mr. Doe's hold on power by showering him with $500 million in taxpayer dollars, the most aid granted any African nation.
In return for this largesse, Liberia's first dictator made his nation the U.S. government's African spearhead in the Cold War, a counter to Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and the Russians and Cubans advancing in Angola.
America's cash funded Mr. Doe's war of misery, atrocity and attrition against rival gangsters ("warlords" is far too grand a name for the greed-driven thugs that vie for the spoils of control). Today, the Cold War and President Reagan are gone; so is Mr. Doe, who was hacked into pieces in the presidential mansion. But the bloody residue of the use of Liberia as our foreign policy pawn remains.
Liberia is no Somalia. As I wrote in 1995, "The shooters and looters are not organized armies but roving gangs of notorious bullies who flee at the first show of strength. Therefore, a properly armed and supported African peacekeeping force can take guns out of the hands of the teen-agers that make up much of the ganglord's 'troops.'"
One of the criminals claiming power is the nominal president, Charles Taylor, who invaded Liberia in 1989 with 125 mercenaries after his escape from a Massachusetts prison. Technically, he was elected to office. However, Mr. Taylor's technique of armed campaigning - with the implicit slogan, "Vote for me or I'll kill you" - hardly grants legitimacy to this jailbird's authority.
There is, of course, a real danger in U.S. intervention: the Iraqi-fication of a humanitarian policing mission.
In Iraq, America's first viceroy in Baghdad, retired Gen. Jay Garner, was replaced by President Bush. I suspect his error was to announce Iraqis could hold elections within 90 days of the end of hostilities. His successor has postponed elections until next year or the year after. Mr. Garner had a military man's instinct that "liberation" begins, after three months, to look like colonial reoccupation - and the cost of that shift can be counted up in body bags for U.S. soldiers.
In Liberia as in Iraq, we should be wary of the temptation to overstay our welcome. Liberia is close enough to Nigeria for the Bush administration to smell the oil. The French have moved troops into the nearby Ivory Coast, and Britain has reasserted authority over Sierra Leone.
It is easy to imagine humanitarian intervention taking an ugly turn, with America again using Liberia as puppet, this time in a tussle over control of African resources. But the greatest difference between other nations where our troops have landed and Liberia is that in Liberia we are welcome.
And we are obligated. We rushed in to fund the killings, now we must go in to end it. Until then, the Liberians will pile the corpses at our doorstep to remind us of the blood on our hands.
Greg Palast, an investigative reporter, is author of 'The Best Democracy Money Can Buy'. He lives in New York.
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun