But for the death and suffering it has caused to thousands of innocents, the Liberian imbroglio would have an almost farcical quality—Graham Greene meets Lehar. On one side, there was the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), a ragtag army of heavily armed but poorly trained and undisciplined rebels. They nevertheless have the upper hand in a 14-year-old civil war that has utterly destroyed an already dirt-poor and chronically mismanaged West African state. On the other side, there was its unspeakable president Charles Taylor, whose shrinking forces controlled only parts of the capital city of Monrovia at the time of this writing. While the two sides’ “ideological” differences are unknown, their disregard for civilian lives and what little remains of usable property in the ruined country is fully shared.
The rebels said that their July offensive against the capital—marked by indiscriminate shelling of civilians—was in response to violations by Taylor’s loyalists of a cease-fire announced in June. The United States wanted Taylor to resign (which he just did, as this issue goes to press) and go into exile, but Washington had also accused the rebels of violating the cease-fire themselves. Mr. Taylor had accepted an offer of political asylum from Nigeria “in principle,” but he said he would not leave until international peacekeepers—including Americans—were in place. At the same time, however, he promised to fight the rebels to the “last man.” Nigeria’s President Obasanjo, whose soldiers are supposed to be a key component of a proposed predominantly West African peacekeeping force, has said that his troops can only be deployed if there is a firm cease-fire. President Bush appeared to suggest that the role of American soldiers would be to assist the deployment of an African force rather than to serve as actual peacekeepers. The Liberians do not trust their fellow Africans, however, and want the G.I.’s and Marines to come to impose order.
By late July, a contingent of Marines was flown in to the U.S. embassy in Mon-rovia to secure the compound, and Washington announced that some 4,500 Marines and sailors would be transferred to the Mediterranean for a possible role in the West African country. With the war taking its daily toll of innocents, desperate Liberians resorted to piling up the bodies of victims outside the U.S. embassy to protest the apparent reluctance of the Bush administration to deploy American troops.
To suggest that the United States has a tangible interest in Monrovia worthy of a single American life is preposterous. Africa is nearly irrelevant to the strategic, economic, or any other rationally definable interests of the United States. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission (“U.S.-Trade and Investment with Sub-Saharan Africa,” January 2003), total U.S. merchandise imports from the region declined 5.2 percent in 2001 to $21.1 billion—1.9 percent of total U.S. imports—primarily because of falling petroleum prices and decreased imports of crude oil from Nigeria. Nonpetroleum imports decreased by almost one fifth and account for less than one percent of U.S. imports. In 2001, total U.S. merchandise exports to sub-Saharan Africa totaled an insignificant $6.8 billion. Were it not for the bureaucratic distortions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), even that figure would have been smaller.
That Africa is the least important continent of them all can be disputed only if Antarctica is included. Its political instability is proverbial, and even the alleged success stories of yore—such as Sierra Leone—are ever liable to plunge themselves into Hobbesian nightmares. Many of its people are endearingly friendly and often charming, but their postindependence leaders have been among the most odious characters known to world politics (and we would do injustice to dozens of lesser-known despots by focusing solely on Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa, or Robert Mugabe).
Africa contributes next to nothing to global science and technology. Its resources are theoretically considerable but often impossible to develop under the prevailing social, political, and legal conditions. Its share in the global economy is negligible. In 2001, sub-Saharan Africa received just over $14 billion in foreign investments—but over half of that sum reflected the financial restructuring resulting from the sale of a South African company to a British firm. Without that one transaction, investment flows would have totaled a paltry $6.9 billion.
President Bush presumably knows all that, but during his first African tour, in early July, he pretended otherwise. For five days, he gushed out bucketfuls of touchy-feely platitudes—about AIDS relief, development, fresh water, democracy—from Johannesburg to Kampala to Lagos. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice set the tone when she told reporters on July 3 that the President’s tour would reflect his understanding “that America is a country that really does have to be committed to values and to making life better for people around the world, that that’s what the world looks to America to do.”
The notion of America as the social worker of the world is silly but harmless enough as long as such words are not supported by deeds, let alone troops. Five years after Bill Clinton’s long-forgotten visit, a presidential tour of Africa has developed into a ritual akin to the taxing but mercifully rare visit to a ne’er-do-well cousin on the wrong side of the tracks. You pretend that his folks’ sorry state is someone else’s fault and that you can and will help him sort things out; he pretends that he’ll mend his ways and make a new start, if you only let him have some of your cash; gifts are distributed to the wide-eyed offspring . . . and that’s it for the next 2,000 days or so. “Why am I going now? I thought it was important to go before my first term was over to show the importance of Africa to my administration’s foreign policy,” Mr. Bush said in an unconscious paraphrase of Sir Edmund Hillary’s stated reason for scaling Mt. Everest.
The President is entitled to spend five days of his life and a million dollars or so of our money any which way he wants and to make earnest Blairite statements if they make him feel good. Combine such neo-Wilsonian piety with the current surplus of testosterone in Washington, however, and you have a disaster in the making. The rationale for the looming Liberian intervention remains unclear. “Humanitarianism” just will not do after the disaster of Mogadishu—and especially after the cynical farce of Kosovo, which would have been an infinitely better place without Clinton’s little war. The desire of many Liberians to see American soldiers in their streets is understandable, but it is not a sufficient reason to send our men into harm’s way. It is particularly unsurprising that upper-crust Liberians—the descendants of Virginian and Carolinian slaves repatriated to Africa almost two centuries ago—want U.S. soldiers to protect them from thousands of native fighters, stoked on drugs and drink, who hold a well-founded grudge against the settler ruling class. The unpleasantness that is likely to accompany Charles Taylor’s departure from power is lamentable but unavoidable. American soldiers cannot prevent or manage it; at best, they can postpone it, at no benefit to anyone but the crumbling oligarchy.
Some Bush-administration officials have attempted to justify U.S. intervention by invoking our “unique historical connection to Liberia.” The White House may thus assert that it is not setting a precedent, but, by exactly the same token, “unique historical connections” would justify an intervention in the Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Quebec, or even Brazil, where a sizeable diehard Confederate diaspora once took refuge.
U.S. officials have also claimed that, if the United States did dispatch soldiers to Liberia, the size and scope of their mission would be limited; 2,000 men (and women, of course) has been the number mentioned. This claim is either naive or disingenuous: Regardless of the size of the proposed force, if and when it encounters difficulties, there will be demands for its open-ended enlargement. (“Once we’re in, we have to get the job done.”) Another possibility, no less unpleasant, is a disorderly and discreditable mass withdrawal after a catastrophic event, á la Beirut 1982 or Mogadishu 1992. Either danger should remind President Bush of the reasonable and clearly stated criteria for military intervention beyond America’s shores that he laid out during the 2000 presidential campaign: Are vital U.S. interests involved? Is there a clear mission? Is there an obvious exit strategy?
On all three accounts, the answer, vis-à-vis Liberia as well as the rest of Africa, is a resounding no. Trying to sound like a realist, Dr. Rice somewhat feebly suggested that the Liberia situation should be viewed through a post-September-11 lens: “One wants to be careful about permitting . . . failed states to create conditions in which there is so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism.” The notion that “failed states” should be safeguarded from further failure in order to prevent the spread of terrorism is untenable: There are dozens of utterly failed states—especially in Africa—that are as irrelevant to the rest of the world as they are inconsequential to the American interest. Saving them from themselves in the name of “fighting terrorism” would demand intervention literally anywhere, anytime, forever. Priorities have to be determined, and making a dignified and bloodless exit from Iraq and Afghanistan should top the list.
Various “humanitarian intervention” enthusiasts will claim that U.S. military action is justified by the fact that the Liberian civil war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and made two million refugees homeless. By the same token, however, at least a dozen conflicts around the world—from Sri Lanka to Mauritania, from Colombia to Kurdistan—were lethal enough to warrant international peacekeepers. On the other side of the African continent, its largest country, Sudan, remains plagued by an intermittent civil war, the world’s bloodiest by far. Its death toll is estimated at over two million—overwhelmingly southern Christians and animists murdered by Muslims.
Liberia is not quite as violent, mainly because Islam is not a factor and its conflict does not have that jihad-esque quality of the divinely ordained mass murder of “infidels.” It is nevertheless paradigmatic of Africa, the continent where chaos reigns and violence, poverty, and corruption rule. Its land, air, and water are squandered, fouled, polluted. Chronic instability replaces long dictatorship or goes hand-in-hand with it. Every nation’s hand is out, seeking alms from justifiably distrustful donors, while 800 million people linger in hopelessness.
It is all very sad, of course, but there is little America can or should do beyond expressing regret and sending some relief supplies—provided that they can get right into the hands of the needy, without a single corrupt government official, customs officer, or hungry soldier taking his cut along the way. Perhaps, far from being hopeless, Africa—with its mineral wealth and huge tracts of land—may be the next frontier of roaring democratic capitalism. Perhaps, but it is not up to America to engineer the outcome one way or another, or—perish the thought—to confuse her own national interests with any given possible outcome.
America should wish Africans luck, because they will need a lot of it in the decades to come; the United States, however, does not “owe” anything to Liberia, or to any other African nation, beyond what Americans owe to their own consciences as compassionate men who want to do what is reasonable and practical in alleviating the unnecessary suffering of innocents. Sending American soldiers into that heart of darkness—regardless of numbers, regardless of destination, regardless of duration, regardless of stated mission—is not the way to do it.