July 7, 2003

Howard Dean falls into the liberal 'humanitarian' trap

by Justin Raimondo

Of all places for the U.S. to intervene militarily, why oh why does it have to be Liberia?

I'll 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.

Except that none of these assertions are true.

Liberia 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.

The 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.

But 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.

The 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, America's Stepchild":

"The 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 Americo-Liberian elite."

Liberia saw rise of the New Class more than a hundred years before Milovan Djilas 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.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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 his death.

The 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.

In 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.

Liberia's descent into chaos had begun. As of today, there is no end in sight.

A 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 was assuaged.

The 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.

But 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.

Washington 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.

Occasional 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.

In 1989, the Americo-Liberians rose up to take their country back. Charles 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.

Liberia rapidly descended into tribal warfare of such ferocity that it does not even bear describing. As Herring describes it:

"Doped up soldiers robed in the spoils of war – dresses, wigs, construction helmets, and swimming goggles – fired on civilians and rival factions with equal disdain."

200 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.

Now 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" – is hinting 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."

There 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.

The 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?

Look, 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:

"We 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 …"

What 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.

There 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."

Says who?


At what cost?

And, 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.

My 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 out…

Liberia 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 the rest?

I 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.

Coming 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.

Believe 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.

On 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!

George 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 Dean:

"Saddam 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."

But 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.

Like 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 above.

Finally, 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.

Human 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.

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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