[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Tuesday, July 29, 2003


Should We Intervene in Liberia: Yes, But

To foreshadow the conclusion here, the buggy prof supports an active US role, diplomatically and militarily, in dealing with the Liberian civil war --- being waged off-and-on for 2 decades now, while more recently helping to destabilize much of tropical West Africa in the north --- but with a twist: our guide for intervening should be the US role in the UN-authorized peace-keeping mission in East Timor, formerly part of Indonesia, that began in 1999 and was a clear success. (To add something important, note that the buggy prof's analysis here draws on the research of a Ph.D. candidate, Chris Cook, whose dissertation on various US humanitarian interventions in the post cold-war era I happen to have the honor of directing. Chris, an outstanding classroom teacher and very promising young scholar, spent several months carrying out extensive interviews in Washington D.C. with former Clinton officials; and his dissertation combines unusual information with a clearheaded analytical framework. He has been very generous in giving me some pointers about the complex Liberian labyrinthe.)

What distinguishes that East-Timor precedent is that the big military burdens of peace-keeping were carried out by states in South Pacific region: Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand. And the US role? An effective, if limited one. Mainly we provided logistic support for the regional forces, including air-lift transportation . . . as well as active diplomacy and morale-boosting. The outcome, as we just noted, was a successful resolution of a vicious crisis that had its roots in the mid-1970s, when Indonesian military forces overran East Timor and forcibly annexed it . . . marked, at the time of the invasion and ever since until East Timor's independence in late 1999, by mass-murdering atrocities and repression on a large scale practiced by Indonesian military forces and local Timorian allies.


The Bush Strategy In Line With This

Fortunately, that seems to be the model that the Bush administration ---- itself internally divided on how to intervene for humanitarian purposes in a country like Liberia, where there are no immediate US security interests (possibly some ambiguous or outrightly vague ones at best) ---- has decided to adopt in the last month, ever since President Bush's visit to Africa.
Not that the problem of violence, human-rights depravities, and spillovers from Liberia onto regional stability in West Africa --- meaning mainly the immediate neighboring states of the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Guinea (see map), but also influencing at times the internal stability of near-by Nigeria --- hadn't appeared on the US agenda earlier. They had. Even in the Bush Sr. and Clinton eras, and then again in the aftermath of 9/11. There's even an ambiguous and vague reference to West African stability that appeared in the Bush reformulation of US pre-emption strategy as officially declared last September. Until now, though, US policy had generally been limited to some diplomatic overtures. The new raging battles and civilian casualties seem to have been decisive in changing the President's mind. (Keep in mind that the surrounding states like the Ivory Coast are also small, like Liberia. We'll give figures later. Nigeria, by contrast, is Tropical Africa's giant, around 130 million, and has had a stable civilian government since 1999 after 16 previous years of military rule.)


Why The Delay?

Note that the model of East Timor that seems to be guiding the President's strategy requires not just that local regional states with an interest in stability and peace in Liberia provide the peace-keepers --- or peace-makers if that's the case ---- but also insists explicitly on a key diplomatic lesson: Africa's political problems have to be mainly solved by Africans themselves.

Remember, as a general guide here: the era of European colonialism is over. It has been for decades. If the French and the British want to intervene militarily for their own reasons in their former colonies, fine. The British intervention that occurred in 2000 in Sierra Leone, with a lucrative diamond business, proved successful; it helped to bring to an end a brutal 10 year civil war there. By contrast, Liberia was never a US colony; we have no clear economic interests in the country, and at best vague and indirect security ones; and any moral obligation to Liberians ---- which does pull more weight in many American minds --- has to be qualified: it's indirect at most, and strictly humanitarian interventions with military forces where there are no clear security or economic national interests ---- think of Somalia --- can quickly go astray and lead to a thicket of self-entangling political complications, not to mention American casualties without any clear interests to be served.

And that's why we're waiting, even as US warships approach Liberian waters. We expect, rightly, that any peacekeepers on the ground come from Nigeria and the neighboring states around Liberia . . . and we ought to expect, given Nelson Mandela's latest haranguing about US policies in the Middle East, South Africa's government --- headed by a Mandela successor --- to send peacekeepers too. So far, South Africa shows no interest whatsoever in intervening --- this despite having by far the best military in Africa. And for their own reasons, not all bad --- they want more money to defray the expenses of peacekeeping --- Nigeria's government has held back from backing up its promise to send two or three battalions immediately to Liberia.


Even As a Limited Intervention, There Are Problems and Legitimate Criticisms

Whether the East Timor model can be successfully applied to Liberia is another matter. There are lots of problems with the analogy,

[1] Not least the instability or ineffectuality of most of the West African states with an interest in militarily intervening, and that includes Nigeria itself: bluntly put, the governments aren't nearly as effective or stable as those in Pacific Asia with peacekeeping forces in East Timor, and their militaries lack the discipline and training of Australia's and those of the Asian interventionist forces. If anything, in Sierra Leone, the blatant ineffectuality of the African peacekeeping forces --- especially Nigerian troops, who seemed more interested in pillaging and swagger and abuses towards the locals than in maintaining a precarious peace --- was one reason, among other, more decisive ones, why the British then decided to intervene militarily in their former colony in 2000. (The British intervention with fewer than 1000 troops turned out to be decisive in ending the 10 year civil war in Sierra Leone: they withdrew in the summer of 2002, elections were then held, and the country has generally been stable since then.)

[2] Nor is Liberia like East Timor in terms of unity. The latter's population is less than a million and overwhelmingly Catholic (a heritage that went back to its status as a Portuguese colony until after WWII); and the internal unity of the Timor population was reinforced over 25 years of brutal Indonesian rule. By contrast, Liberia's population is close to 3.5 million and divided into 18 different and conflicting ethnic groups. There is in effect little internal cohesion such as a shared national identity, nor much in the way of a common history other than what the dominant ruling group --- America ex-slaves, who immigrated to that area (the size of Tennessee) in the 1820s and whose descendants, like the existing President Charles Taylor, constitute about 5% of the population ---- was able to impose upon the indigenous peoples in history books.

[3] And finally, on our side, any military intervention that entangles US forces in active fighting on Liberian soil would spread US forces around the world --- with 30,000 already serving as peace-keepers in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan and a dozen other places, while 130,000 forces actively seek to stabilize post-Saddamite Iraq --- perilously thin, especially if there's no clear political aim at the heart of our intervention and a clear exit-strategy illuminated within a reasonable time-period. Come to that, any noticeable US casualties caused by interventions without clear security and economic interests half-way around the world can provoke, understandably, a political backlash among the US public.


The Relevant Liberian Background:

It's always important --- crucial --- to have some command of geography, demographics, and politics when the US, the only global superpower, is called upon to intervene somewhere, particularly with military forces. A good place always to begin is the CIA's World Factbook, updated annually. Full of useful data, it does not --- alas --- go into the realities of politics beyond a few general statements no matter what the country being treated is.

As we noted earlier, the population of this Tennessee-size country is about 3.5 million, divided into 18 ethnic groups. Its distant history? Only a handful of facts are really needed to make sense of things at present, it seems. Founded by freed US slaves in the 1820s ---- thanks to the initiative of the US Colonization Society, itself created in 1816 by two groups otherwise at loggerheads with one another (Quakers and Abolitionists on one side and on the other a variety of white groups fearful of freed-African slaves for the US's future ) --- the country that became Liberia in the late 1840s was quickly dominated by the ex-US and ex-Caribbean slaves who immigrated there. No surprise. Better educated and better organized, with money provided by the strictly private US Colonization Society, they brought the indigenous people under control and became the ruling elite for the next 150 - 160 years.


Sporadic and Destructive Civil War from 1980 On

The more recent history is, needless to say, germane to understanding what's what in the country. Start with these four crucial facts: the country is

[1] largely illiterate and poor (roughly $1100 per capita in purchasing power parity terms),

[2] rent with internal divisions (including between the two main opposition rebel groups, with frictions inside each, pitted against the existing government),

[3] and racked by violence and atrocities that flare openly at times since 1980, then simmer for a while only to erupt again.

[4] The economy --- potentially rich, given abundant rubber, various tropical agricultural products like coffee, cocoa, and palm oil, and even some gold and other mineral mining --- was never very effectively organized, and in any case, first the ruling freedman elite and later other regimes since 1980 have treated it in a Mafioso-way, something to be exploited, little else. (In the era of President Tubman, who ruled for 27 years from 1944 to 1971, there was at least some promise of a better organized, export-oriented economy, but the promise never brought prosperity to the masses.) In the ruinous violence that has dominated the country since 1980, it has essentially collapsed. Unemployment right now is around 70% of the working population.

For about 150 years or so, the descendants of the US and Caribbean freemen ruled the country as a plantation aristocracy: badly. They themselves, the ruling elite and their close supporters --- about 5% of the population --- did well. Then in 1980 a coup and then civil war flared, and to the extent the origins can be sorted out, it pitted the leaders of indigenous peoples against the ruling elite. The opponents won the civil war, headed by a Samuel Doe, a Non-Com in the military, but the ruling elite and its closest followers never accepted defeat. Doe's rule proved brutal, a fairly typical gangster regime found throughout Africa, Tropical or in the Arab areas to the North, with some exceptions . . . a point we'll return too. Civil war flared up violently in 1989 again when groups of the ruling elite and some others renewed fighting.

In a dress-rehearsal of the current intervention, US forces were sent to the area that year, but the civil war continued to rage and our forces withdrew. Seven years of harsh, mass-murdering civil war followed; the end came when forces led by Charles Taylor, the ruling elite's latest champion --- American educated --- triumphed and elections were held.

The elections seemed relatively free; Taylor's victory was overwhelming. Four years of peace more or less prevailed.


The Liberian Civil War Since 2001

Despite the electoral outcome, Taylor was never able to suppress or win over the previous opposition forces, some of whom took refuge in the Ivory Coast. Taylor's rule proved erratic and brutal . . . . more or less that of a swaggering warlord, more concerned with exploiting and looting the country for himself, his family, and his confidants, than in effective government and development. It's a pattern, alas, common to about half of the African countries, whether Tropical or Arab in the North (and Levant). All 22 of the Arab countries are despotic today, save for transitional Iraq (still violent in parts). By contrast, a couple of dozen tropical African countries are electoral democracies, something non-existent in the Arab world, though probably less than a handful have effectively non-manipulated elections. Go here for a good list. What does differ in the Arab countries, remember, is the degree of brutality of the rule as well as that of outright state-organized pillaging and exploitation. And some of these Arab regimes have a built-in promise of gradual openness in their rule, which doesn't mean anyone should expect a New Zealand or Swiss-like democracy to evolve in the region any time in the decades to come . . . including Iraq. There, the best model is what the US has achieved already in the Kurdish areas of the north. Keep in mind, finally, that there are somewhere between 12 -18 civil wars going on in Tropical and Arab Africa right now, depending on what the threshold of violence and casualties is when calculating these. Sometimes you will come across lower figures. Keep in mind: we are talking about all of Africa, not just Sub-Saharan Africa, and some scholars and groups use different definitions of when a civil war starts, rages, and ends. As for definitions of democracy, including transitional ones, a more scholarly treatment not free of controversy is undertaken annually by Freedom House.)

Taylor himself sent local forces into the 10 year Sierra Leone civil war next door to his country. He has been officially condemned for this intervention --- motivated, apparently, by a greedy desire to share in the loot of the illegal diamond-trade centered there --- as a potential war criminal. When President Bush earlier this month indicated the US would intervene diplomatically and militarily to help end the current Liberian fighting, he conditioned it on Taylor's voluntarily leaving office and the opposition rebel forces agreeing to a peace. That's wise. Otherwise, a civil war will be raging as we contemplate intervention, a key point we'll clarify in a few seconds.

In principle, Taylor has agreed to leave and settle in Nigeria. He, in turn --- no doubt playing for time, hoping for a better battlefield situation for his own forces (the rebels control about 2/3 the country) --- says he won't leave until the peace-keepers arrive from Nigeria and the neighboring states. The neighboring states, in turn, don't understandably want to send peace-keeping forces of a limited number --- at most two or three thousand --- into a country where war is raging and there is no peace to maintain. As we'll see later here, the Bosnian civil war and foreign "peacekeeping" intervention between 1992 and 1995 is an object-lesson of the disaster that lie in store if there are any illusions about the kind of military interventionist forces needed if war is still raging in a country.


The Opposition to Taylor

The origins of the post-1980 violence seemed, initially at least, to pit leaders of the indigenous peoples, themselves badly divided, against the ruling elite of the freemen descendants and its state-military and militias. No ideology was or is evident in the violence, then or now . . . and whether its low-level or eruptive and fiercely destructive as it was for seven years in the first part of the 1990s. Rather, struggles of shifting coalitions, militias frequently consisting of doped armed adolescents, ethnic rivalries, and the desires of warlord types for lining up first at the trough. Don't be misled. The high-sounding manifestos that the two major rebel groups fighting the existing government headed by Charles Taylor have published appear largely aimed at international audiences. The biggest rebel group, LURD --- Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy --- is itself internally split over who's to be Mr. Biggie in the country, and who and which groups will then line up first at the trough. The more recently formed, better organized force, MODEL --- Movement for Democracy in Liberia --- is essentially limited to one of the ethnic groups, the Krahn --- whose leaders had fled the country in the late 1990s and taken refuge in the neighboring Ivory Coast, only to return onto Liberian soil in the early part of this decade. With its limited ethnic basis, MODEL --- better organized than LURD --- naturally hasn't generated much support elsewhere. LURD looks more or less like a patchwork of feuding warlords and armed undisciplined militias. Together, one fighting in the South, the other the North and Center, have still been much more effective than Taylor's undisciplined national army and the ragtag pillaging militias he and his henchmen have relied on.

Keep in mind that the rebel forces aren't large --- MODEL maybe has 1000 fighters, LURD perhaps four or five times that number ---- and to call them effective militaries is to stretch the meaning of the term. And beyond the shared desire to get rid of Taylor, there is no promising unified opposition movement that looks capable of actually taking control of the country's government and generating both stability and widespread support. This judgment, to be sure, is tentative. The buggy prof could be wrong. But right now, beyond shattering Taylor's rule, the rebel forces look like various warlord and related ethnic movements, little else.


The Problems of US-Led Multinational Intervention

Unfortunately, the Nigerian-spearheaded intervention --- on which the US is counting --- faltered, for days in mid-and late July . . . mainly because of the Nigerian government's legitimate concern over the costs of such intervention. Right now, the diplomatic haggling is between that government and the UN. In principle, the monetary stakes aren't great. The UN leadership seems willing to find a way to reallocate enough funds to satisfy Nigeria and the other West African states with an interest in Liberian stability. Our prediction: agreement will be reached.

(Fortunately, as predicted here earlier today, the Nigerians and five other African countries --- Ghana, Mali, Benin, Senegal and Togo --- not only have agreed on July 30th with the UN to send troops, but have sent advance inspectors onto Liberian soil, along with Americans, to prepare for the immediate arrival of the first forces.)