Liberia And American Interventionism

Weeks have past since George W. Bush toured Africa and said he was thinking about sending American peacekeeping forces to help stop the civil war in Liberia. The United Nations has requested peacekeepers, as have many African countries, most especially Liberia's immediate neighbors. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Liberians have died while Bush considered his options. Food and medicine are in short supply in the country and observers are warning of a humanitarian disaster.

On Wednesday, the first contingent of U.N.-backed peacekeepers, soldiers from Nigeria, arrived in Liberia. They were greeted as liberators and heroes. The first contingent of Yanks also landed, "fewer than ten" according to the N.Y. Times, part of a 2,300-strong Marine task force waiting on naval ships off the Liberian coast. Eighty other American soldiers are also in Liberia, protecting the U.S. Embassy.

But the Bush administration has no stomach for this intervention. Our forces are over-extended, claim administration officials. Instead, the U.S. has offered $10 million to logistically support African peacekeepers. That about covers the cost of moving the Nigerian peacekeepers into the country.

There are reasons to oppose military intervention by American forces anywhere in the world. Our record has not been good. More often than not it has been used to test weapons, prop up dictators, and overthrow democrats. We're a global power, with economic and strategic interests everywhere, so our underlying motives should always be scrutinized. Compare, for example, the enthusiasm with which the Bush administration invaded Iraq with its reluctance to serve as peacekeepers in Liberia. Regime change is a stated goal in both Liberia and Iraq, but Iraq has oil -- enough said.

Right-wing critics oppose committing American troops into dangerous situations, even for humanitarian purposes. Somalia is their model. The first Bush administration initially opposed the U.N. effort to send peacekeeping forces to that strife-torn country. But when CNN began showing pictures of starving people, pressure built for the U.S. to act. The U.S. agreed to lead a U.N.-sponsored coalition that included troops from 20 nations to stop the civil war and bring food and medicine to the country. A massive airlift at first succeeded. But in September 1993, Somalia warlords killed 25 Pakistani peacekeepers. Ignoring the U.N. chain-of-command, American forces set out to punish the warlords. Because of poor intelligence, they walked into an ambush. Eighteen Americans (and hundreds of Somalis) died. Bill Clinton, new in office, withdrew American forces and this ended the U.N. mission. Somalia then descended into chaos, and allegedly became a center for anti-American terrorist activity.

Somalia has since been used as an argument against American peacekeeping efforts in Africa and elsewhere. A more pertinent model is Rwanda. There, during a three-month period in 1994, Hutu tribesmen massacred over 800,000 Tutsis. Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, commander of U.N peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, saw the genocide coming and pled for additional forces to forcefully stop the Hutus. The U.N., mostly because of American opposition, refused his request. Much to their horror, the U.N. peacekeepers could do nothing to stop the slaughter. The lesson of Rwanda, as General Dallaire has since testified, is that an international community had the power to stop the Rwandan genocide but didn't. This is an intervention that should have occurred. It represents Bill Clinton's most spectacular failure as president.

The international community has, I think, learned from the Rwanda disaster. Australian forces, under U.N. auspices, successfully liberated East Timor from Indonesia. More recently, Britain and France, again with U.N. backing, sent troops and ended civil strife in their respective former colonies of Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. The people of these countries welcomed each of these interventions.

Liberia, which was founded by American slaves, is an English speaking country with a history of close ties to the United States. The U.N. has requested that we, in support of African troops, end the civil war in Liberia. We should have intervened weeks ago; we should do it now. The civil war in Liberia is not about ideology or economics. It's about warlords and their quest for power. The U.N., with America's help, needs to disarm the warlords and protect the civilians.

The question begs discussion: what constitutes a just intervention? Why should American troops be sent to Liberia, but not, in my opinion, to Iraq? The first rule should be that an intervention have international support, first by the U.N. but also by countries of the affected region. Unlike Liberia, Iraq has neither U.N. backing nor regional support. In a global economy, economics are a factor in all foreign policy initiatives. Oil defines our presence in Iraq. In Liberia, as in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Timor and, I would argue, in Bosnia and Kosovo, human rights trumped economic arguments. Warlordism and tribal warfare (whether it be religious, racial, or ethnic) are barriers to civic justice and social progress. The international community must find the resolve, and the means, to stop human carnage. As the most powerful nation in the world, our forces will often be called upon to do the heavy-lifting. As long as the humanitarian purpose is well defined and we have the strong support of the international community, I would be inclined, as in Liberia, to support a peacekeeping effort.

It's easy to knock the U.N. for its failures. Rwanda is a horrendous one. But the U.N. is only as effective as its member nations allow it to be. The record of the United States in supporting U.N. efforts at peacekeeping and peacemaking has, historically, been shamefully wanting.

There has been almost no debate in Congress or among Democratic presidential candidates about the role that the United States should play in Liberia and about peacekeeping in general. The media is disinterested. It's "Kobe time," on the news programs, and to hell with "boring" issues like war and peace. The situation in Liberia, like the war in Iraq, demands critical analysis and full discussion. We're not having it.

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