July 8, 2003

Liberia: What American Interest?
by Alan Bock

There are some in the Beltway who consider that the very fact that the United States has no particular interest in the outcome of the current civil war in Liberia beyond a vague humanitarian desire for the killing to come to an end as the best of justifications for sending American troops to the West African country. It's pretty weird reasoning as I see it, but here's how it goes, as best I understand it.

If there were a military, geopolitical or economic reason for the United States to intervene, you see, a benefit to American well-being or geostrategic interests, then a U.S. military intervention would be seen as yet another example of American imperialism, of America using its military might to advance its own selfish interests. If, on the other hand, everyone understands that there is no particular American interest to be gained in Liberia, the military incursion will be seen as a true, disinterested, purely humanitarian intervention, done strictly out of the goodness of the big American heart, for the benefit of the unfortunate people of Liberia. Then the world will appreciate us and love us.

What's wrong with that reasoning? Almost everything, beginning with the fact that we would be putting American lives at stake with no particular American interest at stake. While some Americans might join the military strictly for adventure, adrenaline and the chance to prove themselves in the face of danger, regardless of whether a legitimate American cause or any cause at all is at stake, not all of them do.

Those seeking adrenaline highs would do better to become soldiers of fortune, That would leave those who thought they enlisted to serve American interests (or get their lives in order or set themselves up in the "Army of one" for a college scholarship or a good civilian job) to face danger mainly when they are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that American interests are at stake.

That would leave out Liberia. But we already have a small detachment on the ground, ostensibly to assess the situation and see if a larger contingent might actually play a constructive role. And on his current trip to Africa President Bush will undoubtedly face pressure to increase the commitment.


Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the push to send American troops to Liberia is how quickly it has coalesced. A week ago all right, a week and a half ago, there was no serious consideration of sending troops to a country that, depending on how you measure such things, had been engaged in a brutal civil war for four years or 13 years. Within days of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan suggesting the United States might want to consider sending troops, we had troops on the ground.

Unfortunately, this initial commitment has come without anything resembling a debate in the United States except some desultory discussions among the elite members of government who seem to consider democratic public opinion and consent something to be manufactured rather than followed. To be sure, the pressure that was said to exist for the president to come to a decision before his current trip began did not lead to the kind of larger-scale commitment many hoped or feared would ensue.

But the administration has stuck its toe in West African waters. The longer even a few troops stay in Liberia the harder it will be not to keep increasing the commitment without looking as if we have "cut and run," which seems like the last thing this administration would want to be accused of, no matter how badly things go in Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever. It will be increasingly difficult to make a dispassionate assessment of not even the presence of conceivable American interests, but of whether a U.S. presence would be constructive or helpful.


But apparently when it comes to "humanitarian" interventions, it's in for a penny, in for a pound. As the likelihood of finding miscellaneously rather than logically grouped "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq recedes, the administration has been adjusting its rationale. There's still the occasional promise that we'll eventually stumble across some dread WMDs, but even President Bush has taken to talking about a weapons "program" (which can presumably be documented through pieces of paper) rather than actual weapons.

Without those elusive WMDs in hand, administration spokesmen for weeks and months now have been talking about rebuilding Iraq, ending torture, building democracy, restoring order, building a modern economy and doing good for the formerly oppressed people of Iraq. In other words, with any evidence of an imminent threat unlikely to appear (and pleasantly persistent questioning of just how egregiously the administration and its minions exaggerated the threat Sadism Hussein posed, even in the face of a full-court press by administration loyalists to bill such questions as treasonous or kooky), the military campaign has now become a humanitarian adventure.

Forget about those nagging doubts about WMDs, ties to al Quid or anything resembling an imminent threat, is the implicit administration line. We did it out of the goodness of our hearts, because we really, really cared about the poor people of Iraq groaning under the yoke of tyranny. And by the way, if you're buying this, pay no attention to those reports from Iraq that suggest lots of people might be worse off than they were before and some are discontented enough to shoot at American soldiers. These things take time, and our hearts are pure.

But if a military campaign on the scale of the Iraq war can be undertaken for strictly humanitarian reasons, then what troubled and beleaguered country is not a candidate for humanitarian intervention? If Liberia is the next victim/beneficiary, the answer is that no country is not a candidate. It would be a real challenge to come up with a country that has less to do with anything resembling U.S. national interests, or even its geostrategic imperial interests. As Andrew Bacevich points out in his valuable recent book, "American Empire," Africa plays no particular role in American imperial designs, has no resources that can't be better acquired through a reasonably open market, and has only the occasional incident that could serve as a plausible threat. It serves mainly as the object of the occasional symbolic gesture to create the impression for a moment or two that American leaders are big-hearted.


A couple of the people I talked to last week suggested that the Bush administration might just view a modest intervention in Liberia as a symbolic gesture designed to defuse possible pressures to get involved in even more unsettled and probably unresolvable (at least through U.S. intervention) African trouble spots. Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe has created widespread misery and plenty of unnecessary deaths. The situation in the Congo is much more volatile and has involved more deaths. We have slavery and a concerted campaign against Christians and animists in Sudan. Although the genocide finally ended in Rwanda, the country (if your want to call it a country) has hardly emerged as a model for freedom and prosperity.

The administration just might be anticipating a call from the various members of the international floating crap game of loosely-affiliated diplomats that most of the media are pleased to dub the "international community" to do something concrete (probably military, but perhaps involving an aid package that would dwarf the recently announced AIDS initiative) about one of these situations. Any of them could be much more expensive and probably more dangerous than sending a few thousand U.S. troops to Liberia. If we've sent those troops to Liberia, some may be hoping, the administration will be able to argue that we have done our bit in Africa, that we want to be endlessly helpful but have to match our goals to our resources.

It's at least as likely, however, that an intervention in Liberia will serve as a precedent that will make it more difficult, rather than easier, to resist the siren call of those whose humanitarianism is expressed by spending the lives and resources of others to intervene in yet more African crises. Once we've established a policy of being willing to send troops to an African country in which no conceivable American interest is at stake, the insistent minions of humanitarian intervention will argue that we now have experience and expertise on the continent, and should be not just willing but eager to solve the next crisis that finds its way to the airwaves of CNN.


Almost lost in the discussion is the pesky question of the likelihood of even a large-scale American intervention actually solving the ongoing problems in Liberia. Charles Taylor, who may have accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria even though he has been indicted by a UN war-crimes court in Sierra Leone, is certainly a thug of the first order. But the rebels don't come off as especially attractive either. It appears (I'm willing to revise my view if I learn new things) that there's little of ideology or a desire to have a free and prosperous country involved in the civil war.

The tussle seems to be mainly about who will control the illicit trade in "dirty diamonds" that has subsidized governments and rebellions in Sierra Leone and other African countries. The United States shows no signs of having area experts available who might understand some of the ins and outs of what appears to be mainly an opportunistic approach on all sides. It might well be that the only way to dampen the ongoing struggle over control of variously illicit forms of (relative) wealth wold be for the United States to assume de facto control over the entire country, dictating its politics for a period of indeterminate length. Even that is likely to work only if the U.S. finds some diplomats and military administrators with a lot more detailed knowledge of the region than has been on display so far.

There are potentially hopeful signs. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have aid that America's military leadership would much rather have neighboring countries take the lead in trying to pacify and control Liberia, which is hardly surprising considering the extent to which imperial overstretch in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Bosnia, Kosovo, South Korea, Japan and Western Europe) has made the military worry about overcommitment. The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee have expressed the notion that any U.S. military commitment in Liberia should be preceded by, of all things, congressional approval. And the Bush administration did resist the temptation to announce an immediate intervention even in the face of the president's imminent trip to Africa. Perhaps there were doubts more serious than those aired in public.

My guess, however, is that the current contingent will become convinced, and will convince the leaders in the administration, that more troops might just be able to save the day. So we will distract the American people even further from the ongoing failures to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein with a modest little effort to give the natives a "whiff of the grape" in Liberia. That effort is likely to be mostly unsuccessful and therefore likely to grow in scope.

I wouldn't mind if President Bush were to prove me wrong.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

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