all places for the U.S. to intervene militarily, why oh why
does it have to be Liberia?
tell you why: political correctness. Liberia, you see, gives
us a chance to "liberate" a country populated by blacks, and,
furthermore, one that was supposedly founded by "freed slaves."
So, you see, America is the "mother country," in this case,
and we have an obligation to bail out the Liberians, who are
really, in a sense, long-lost Americans.
that none of these assertions are true.
was founded, not
by freed slaves, but by the American
Colonization Society (ACS), an uneasy coalition of slave-holding
Southerners and moderate abolitionists who believed that blacks
roaming free in the U.S. could only mean trouble. So they
determined that the best course would be to ship them back
to Africa: exactly the position taken today by white supremacists.
ACS, sponsored by several state governments, sent boat-loads
of freed slaves to Liberia from Maryland, Virginia, New York,
and elsewhere, in the early 1800s, and then decided that independence
would be the best course, as the colony was taxing the financial
resources of the ACS and rebellion against the Society's
authority was endemic. A Declaration of Independence and a
Constitution were drawn up, supposedly based on the American
model, and the familiar triad of legislative, executive and
judicial branches were set up by the "Americo-Liberians,"
as they called themselves.
there was one big difference with the original U.S. model
as it evolved: in the Liberian version, the "Americo-Liberians"
were legally privileged over and above the native inhabitants,
and they lorded it over the natives just as the white Southern
aristocracy had once lorded over them. Only "Americo-Liberians"
could own property, vote, and run for office: These legal
inequalities were written into the Liberian Constitution,
as well as the Declaration of Independence. The Liberian state
was an instrument in the hands of the Americo-Liberians for
keeping the natives officially deemed "aborigines"
down on the farm, literally.
political culture of the colonists took a decidedly bizarre
turn, so that Liberian history resembled Gone
With the Wind if Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler,
and all the white characters, not just the slaves,
had been played by black actors. Agriculture was looked down
on as beneath the dignity of the Americo-Liberian elite. Status
was achieved by entry into law or government service, and
the "free" government of the "liberated" slaves was a source
of economic as well as political oppression. As Major J. E.
Herring puts it in "Liberia,
business of the Americo-Liberians was, after all, the business
of goverrnment. As long as the government was funded, be it
through loans, manipulation of the tariffs, the granting of
foreign franchises, the letting of contracts, or foreign corporation
kickbacks, the Americo-Liberians were likewise funded. Meanwhile,
the indigenous peasants endured poverty and neglect, surving
through subsistence farming or as laborers and maids of the
saw rise of the New Class more than a hundred years before
coined the term and neoconservatives
adapted the concept to their critique of the modern welfare
state. This make-believe nation, carved out of Africa by racists
and their "liberal" collaborators, was propped up not only
economically but also militarily by the U.S. The U.S. Navy
several times came to the aid of the beleaguered Americo-Liberians,
who made up only 5 percent of the population, when it looked
like they might be overwhelmed by "aboriginal" resistance.
1885, with the colonists in a state of perpetual war with
the tribes of the interior, the Liberian government requested
U.S. military intervention, and a ship was sent to quell the
fighting. (However, a British incursion in 1888, and a French
attack in 1892, failed to provoke a similarly stern response.)
In 1912, President William Howard Taft sent three African-American
army officers to train the Liberian army.
1929, the League of Nations set
up a commission to investigate charges that much of the
Liberian economy was based on forced labor. Liberian government
workers, i.e. the descendants of the original colonists, were
allowed to impress their subjects as porters, and force them
to work on government projects, such as roads: the Americo-Liberian
overseers were carried along on hammocks by their downtrodden
charges. When the Liberian government contracted with Spain
to provide transient workers, whole tribes were kidnapped
and sent abroad, while the government was paid by the head.
election of William
V. S. Tubman as President, in 1944, saw the extension
of voting rights to indigenous peoples: Tubman was the first
President to make a serious effort to reach out to and control
the interior. Until his death in office, in 1971, Tubman
balanced the interests of the Americo-Liberian elite with
the brooding yet unawakened power of the majority, with surprising
success. His "Open Door" policy brought in substantial foreign
investment, and allowed the previously hollow Liberian economy
to diversify to some limited extent. Tubman, affectionately
known as "Uncle Shad," made frequent trips to the interior,
embraced tribal culture, and often appeared in traditional
native dress. His charisma and sense of showmanship, along
with some grasp of basic economic realities, held the make-believe
nation of "Liberia" together and it fell apart rapidly after
army, commanded by officers of native descent, had been a
constant source of potential trouble during the Tubman years:
in 1963, 1966, 1969, and 1970 respectively, incipient coups
had been aborted. But with Tubman gone, the indigenous genie
was let out of the bottle. Government corruption reached new
levels of larceny under Tubman's successor, William
R. Tolbert, Jr., and falling commodity prices underscored
the economic reality that Liberia as a separate state was
simply not viable. Tens of thousands of unemployed flooded
Monrovia, the capital named after U. S. President James
Monroe and rising opposition to Tolbert provoked a government
crackdown: several opposition leaders were arrested.
an effort to get all these poor, uneducated country folk out
of their city, and entice them back to the interior, the Liberian
government decided to increase the rice subsidy by 20 percent.
The price of this important staple soon rose, and the knowledge
that Tolbert and his cronies were heavily invested in rice
production added to the resentment: in 1979, what started
out as a peaceful protest against rising prices turned into
a riot as the few thousand middle class marchers were joined
by 10,000 "back street boys" from the growing urban underclass,
who went on a rampage, smashing everything in sight. Tolbert's
response was to order his troops to fire on the unarmed demonstrators.
descent into chaos had begun. As of today, there is no end
year later, an illiterate sergeant in the Liberian army, Samuel Kanyon Doe,
led a group of disgruntled soldiers to the Presidential palace
and disemboweled Tolbert in his bed. Doe seized power, proclaimed
himself "President," and led Liberia down a path familiar
to students of modern African history. As a portent of things
to come, Tolbert's ministers were dragged down to the beach
in their pajamas, lashed to telephone polls, and slaughtered,
with the spectacle broadcast live to the "liberated" masses.
The middle class sections of Monrovia were looted and burned,
as a 150-year-old grudge against the Americo-Liberian elite
Jacobin free-for-all was followed by the dictatorship of Doe,
who declared martial law and outlawed all political activity.
Far from being a victory for the long-oppressed natives, Doe's
reign was marked by the rise to power of the native Krahn
tribe, which is the smallest ethnic group in the Liberian
ethno-universe, totaling some 4 percent of the total population.
Instead of the government favoring the Americo-Liberians,
who had, at least, some education, official posts were filled
with illiterate Krahn tribesmen. The economic tailspin that
characterized Tolbert's rule turned into a nosedive.
Doe was no dummy. He immediately moved to procure more foreign
aid and military support from Washington by playing the Cold
War game. A hint that U.S. resistance to his repeated requests
might lead him to seek help elsewhere from Libya, Ethiopia,
and the Soviet Union provoked a quick and substantial response
from the Reagan administration: 100 U. S. Marines were sent
to Liberia to demonstrate America's support for the Doe government,
and aid to Liberia was increased. The country had been used
by the CIA as a base to overthrow the government of Chad,
and on the basis of this success was chosen as the linchpin
of the covert effort to overthrow Libya's Moammar Qadafy.
had expected Doe and his soldiers to go back into the barracks,
so that elections could be held and civilian rule restored,
but instead Doe rigged the elections, lost anyway, had the
ballots burned, and then declared himself the winner. Two
of the largest parties had been prevented from running candidates.
Yet Washington certified the vote as "a beginning," and the
aid spigot continued to flow with U.S. tax dollars.
rebellions were brutally crushed, but as the Cold War wound
down, so did the American aid that kept the Liberian patronage
system running smoothly. Unable to govern by pure terror,
Sergeant Doe depended on the millions that flowed from Washington's
coffers to keep his followers happy and united in support
of his continuing dictatorship, but by 1990 the spigot had
been turned off, except for humanitarian emergency aid.
1989, the Americo-Liberians rose up to take their country
Taylor, born of an American father and a Liberian mother,
had spent ten years in the United States, graduated from Waltham
College, in Massachusetts, and worked as an auto mechanic.
Active in the anti-Tolbert student opposition, he returned
to Liberia when Doe took power, and went to work for the government:
after being accused of embezzling $900,000, he fled back to
the U.S., was captured and held for extradition. But he managed
to escape from jail reportedly by sawing through the bars
and made his way back to Africa, where he and 150 well-armed
and trained men launched attacks on Doe's forces. Doe responded
with characteristic brutality. The army swept into Nimba county,
a rebel stronghold, wreaking devastation in their wake.
rapidly descended into tribal warfare of such ferocity that
it does not even bear describing. As Herring describes it:
up soldiers robed in the spoils of war dresses, wigs, construction
helmets, and swimming goggles fired on civilians and rival
factions with equal disdain."
Marines landed in the midst of this surrealistic nightmare
and evacuated U.S. embassy personnel and American civilians,
as they would periodically in the years to come. Efforts by
a regional confederation of African states to quell the fighting
led only to an exacerbation of the conflict, propping up Doe
against Taylor until the former was killed in an ambush, whereupon
his followers continued the fight. A peace agreement between
the factions led to phony "elections," in which Taylor triumphed
through intimidation, and installed himself as the virtual
dictator. U.S. aid continued to flow throughout this period.
the crisis of the Liberian state has shattered the fragile
social contract, and the country has once again descended
into chaos. Cries for American intervention are rising up
from both sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand,
President Bush who has just now decided that the Iraq war
was a "humanitarian" intervention, and not, as we were led
to believe, a preemptive strike against "weapons of mass destruction"
broadly that the Marines are about to be sent in to restore
order. On the other hand, Howard Dean, the supposed "antiwar"
candidate and "truth-teller" in the Democratic pack of presidential
wannabes, is endorsing
the Bushian plan to intervene, not only on "humanitarian"
grounds, but because "there are also credible reports that
terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda are present, exploiting
the illicit diamond trade."
are also credible reports that Al
Qaeda exploited the stock market to reap a financial reward
from 9/11: does that mean we ought to send the Marines to
occupy Wall Street? No doubt such a plan would play well with
Dean's left-wing Democratic base, but the essential similarity
with Bush's stance ought to make them stop and think.
Bush administration and its supporters want to "drain the swamp"
of the Middle East, which is where the great bulk of Bin Laden's
recruits are, and that is what the war and the subsequent
occupation of Iraq are all about. If it's okay to drain a
minor African tributary of that swamp, as Dean says, then
why not go for the main arteries in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and
throughout the Middle East?
I was just as thrilled as any one of my left-wing "let's boot
Bush" readers to hear about a presidential candidate who not
only opposed the Iraq war but did so in forceful, even occasionally
eloquent, terms. But Howard falls into the trap of liberal
"humanitarianism," and he falls hard:
must do this not only to defend our interests, but to act
as force for good in a country that has been an ally to the
US for decades. The Bush administration claims to prize 'moral
clarity' in their conduct of foreign policy. I can think of
no better way for the Administration to demonstrate this quality
than to step in to assist the people of Liberia, which have
long been oppressed by vicious dictators, most recently Charles
Taylor. We have the power to help the people of Liberia put
themselves on a path to security and eventual democracy
drivel. In the entire history of Liberia, the U.S. government
has been a force for evil, not good, starting from
its very inception. We supported the Americo-Liberian elite
as they replicated the very tyranny they had escaped. Our
do-gooders conceived the idea of "Liberia" initially called
"Christopolis" to begin with, and the U.S. Navy kept the
colonists from being driven out by the natives. Now we want
to go in and do some more "good." Forgive me if I sound a
bit cynical, but for some reason I don't think the historical
record is cause for optimism.
is much in Dean's above-quoted statement that beggars belief,
but perhaps the most egregious error is the native notion
that "we have the power to help the people of Liberia put
themselves on a path to security and eventual democracy."
most importantly, for how long? American military planners
and policymakers are telling us it will take 5 to 10 years
before the fragile seed of democracy sprouts in the arid soil
of Iraq. Will Liberia's jungles prove more hospitable or
less? I would be willing to be bet on the latter.
evaluation of the Liberian crisis and its inherent intractability
is based on the only other prominent example in modern times
of the unique problem posed by a settler colony: Israel. Aside
from the obvious differences, the similarities are striking:
the founding of Liberia was motivated, in part, by the concept
of a return to the land of one's ancestors, a reclaiming of
what had been lost, and was, like Zionism, inspired by a religious
messianism. The original colonists, inspired by the Great
Awakening of the 1800s, were inspired to spread the word of
God among the heathens, and the clergy was utilized for recruiting
purposes. American blacks, like the Jews of the Diaspora,
were scattered far and wide, and everywhere oppressed: Liberia,
the "land of liberty," would be a haven for a dispossessed
people. This was the basis of the ACS's support among Northern
liberals, although the radical abolitionists notably William
Lloyd Garrison were appalled. Rightly, as it turned
was a mistake from the get-go. Any attempt to hold it together
as a unitary nation is foredoomed to certain failure. In the
crisis of the Liberian state, nature is merely attempting
to correct a man-made error, and cannot be stayed from its
inevitable course. No matter how many troops we send, and
how much money is pumped into this misadventure, no reasonable
amount of aid, time, and attention can solve the Liberian
problem which is the existence of Liberia itself. Dean prates
about promoting "stability" in the region, but the entire
continent south of the Mediterranean fringe is one great big
disaster area. How long before we are prompted to take on
know I'm going to get the requisite number of outraged letters
from my liberal-leftie friends and fellow antiwar activists
for saying this, but that hasn't stopped me before. Indeed,
it's usually all the incentive I require. However, in this
case, the need for truth is even more pressing, if only on
account of Dean's defection. The War Party's claim that the
Middle East has barely moved out of the Middle Ages is a crude
and often-voiced expression of their anti-Arab prejudice,
but can any of these proud interventionists and Bush supporters
deny that Africa has barely moved out of prehistory? From
the Stone Age to the Enlightenment and then on to what is
optimistically called modernity is a long road to travel:
Does even Howard Dean imagine it can be done in under a decade?
A century is more like it.
from someone who is proposing a national health insurance
scheme bound to cost incalculable multi-billions, and a Rooseveltian
"national recovery" program that will send government spending
and taxes soaring, the idea of lifting Liberia up out
of the abyss is nonsensical. Dean's supporters will be forgiven
if, in their heart of hearts, they wonder why we must
send troops to the streets of Monrovia when the streets of
our own cities are roiling with disorder and drug wars. The
ordinary people Dean will never recruit don't want their tax
dollars shipped off to Liberia, along with their sons and
daughters. No doubt a lot of his active supporters feel the
same way. The many predictions that Dean will be sunk by his
habit of shooting off his mouth seem to be coming true, and
that 's too bad.
me, I don't care what the domestic views of any presidential
candidate are, short of instituting complete socialism. I
take the Rothbardian position
on the primacy of foreign policy for libertarians: after
all, the laissez-faire society we envision is impossible in
a society that is constantly at war. We who oppose the coercion
of the State at home are duty bound to prevent and protest
its geographical extension across State borders.
these grounds, I would find nearly any candidate tolerable
provided he or she advocated a reasonably consistent foreign
policy of minding our own business. In spite of my conservative
nay, reactionary views, I was willing to put up
with the laughable economic policies advocated by a liberal
Democrat of Dean's ilk: heck, I'd even go further to the left,
and promote Dennis
Kucinich if only he would agree to stay the heck out
of Liberia, dammit!
W. Bush believes we can take on the bleeding sore of the Middle
East, and President Dean would add to this the sore spot of
Africa. I say: a pox on both their houses. The same hubris
that sent us careening into Kabul, and barging into Baghdad,
finds us all too eager to "liberate" Liberia. The President's
partisan opponents are yelping "Where's the WMD?", but defenders
of the administration are saying the invasion of Iraq was
justified on "humanitarian" grounds alone. Now Bush's critics
are practically demanding that he occupy Liberia while denouncing
the occupation of Iraq. Oh, but these are not the same, says
Hussein's was an extraordinarily brutal regime. The Iraqi
people and the world are better off without him. But that
was not the justification the Bush administration presented
for the invasion of Iraq. We based the war on the argument
that we faced an imminent threat to our interests from weapons
of mass destruction and Iraqi support for Al-Qaeda neither
of which have been proven to date."
surely the brutality of the Ba'athist regime, its totalitarian
nature, and Saddam's far from sympathetic character were the
main propaganda tools of the Bush administration in pushing
us into war. WMD, and the Al Qaeda connection, only came later,
at the end of a decade-long campaign by the War Party. So
what Dean is saying, essentially, is that the addition of
these later elements somehow disqualified the "humanitarian"
aspects, and rendered them invalid. If only Bush had stuck
to atrocity stories, Dean might have gone along with the war.
the famously futile gesture of King
Canute, who tried to hold back the sea by the sheer force
of his kingly demeanor, the efforts of the U.S. to impose
anything resembling order in most of the world are laughable.
In the case of Africa, pessimism is certainly called for:
they don't call it the Dark Continent for nothing. And as
for Liberia: it is hopeless, for all of the reasons outlined
the argument is made that we have a moral obligation to intervene
in Liberia and, somehow, make things right, precisely because
we spawned this bastard child, misshapen and unruly, and set
him loose in the world, with no thought of responsibility
or consequences. Liberia, it is said, is the offspring of
our own guilt. Yet we have no moral responsibility for the
bizarre direction taken by the original colonists, who created
a mirror image of their own bondage and imposed it on the
natives. These are the real roots of the present conflict.
folly and human history are synonyms, for all intents and
purposes, and that is a problem that not even our peerless
military can solve. It is a lesson that too many Americans
will die learning.
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