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On Point

Liberian Chaos

by Austin Bay
July 9, 2003Enter Liberia? For the United States, that's a snap, militarily.

Here's a possible military entrance: Special operations forces in Liberia conduct a quick survey of landing sites. They attempt to identify potential resistance, paying particular attention to armed gangs and militias.

Reconnaissance jets and unmanned aircraft, like the Predator, watch the jungle as assault ships arrive off the coast. Helicopters and amphibious vehicles shuttle Marines from the ships into the capital, Monrovia. Marine Harrier jumpjets cover the deployment. The Marines have a complex task. They must be poised for combat and yet simultaneously demonstrate to a frightened populace that they intend to secure peace. The jarheads arrive in bulletproof vests, but they also distribute candy.

Given Liberia's violent anarchy, this entrance might include a U.S. attack on the gangs who serve as Liberian President and Chief Gangster Charles Taylor's first-line muscle. The Pentagon could call this attack a "pre-emptive strike to protect peacekeepers." It would demonstrate American capabilities to the armed punks who rape, torture and murder the unarmed and helpless on a daily basis. Suddenly, their merciless cruelty has consequences.

This entrance is an intricate ballet no other nation can stage with such speed and high likelihood of success. It's "hyperpower" on display. American troops can conduct these tricky operations in the world's hard corners because they train constantly and American taxpayers buy the expensive ships, aircraft, intelligence systems and weapons long-range operations demand.

So America can handle the entrance. The determinative issues with Liberia are (1) why do we go and (2) how do we leave?

One reason we go is Liberia's American historical connections. The American Colonization Society landed freed U.S. slaves at the present site of Monrovia in 1822. In 1847, the settlers established Africa's first independent republic. The freed slaves became the ruling class in Liberia and thoroughly controlled "tribal Liberians" until 1980.

That's when the "current crisis" began, as Master Sgt. Samuel Doe (with the support of his Krahn tribe) overthrew the "Americo-Liberian" regime. Doe put his Krahn compatriots in key positions. In 1989, Charles Taylor, a former Doe compatriot, rebelled, drawing on the Gio and Mano tribes for support. One of Taylor's allies, Prince Johnson, turned on Taylor, starting a three-way fight for power. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent in peacekeepers, with Nigeria leading the operation.

In 1990, Johnson killed Doe, recording the murder on videotape. The next seven years featured warlord chaos, frustrated peacekeepers and flopped peace plans. Taylor emerged as the kingpin in an interim governing council. In 1997, Taylor was elected president in an election Jimmy Carter declared "fair."

Since then, Taylor's deals with diamond and arms smugglers have involved Liberia in Sierra Leone's misery as well as shenanigans in the Ivory Coast. An anti-Taylor rebellion broke out in 2000. In 2002, Taylor declared a state of emergency. Liberia disintegrated into warring chunks.

The United Nations and United States both believe removing Taylor from power sets the stage for political stabilization. Taylor says he'll go, but he might return.

Even if he leaves, Liberia's problems are overwhelming. Corruption and gangsterism exacerbate tribal frictions in what was essentially a petty West African coastal empire.

The instant upside to intervention is saving thousands of innocent lives. That's another reason to intervene.

Liberia, however, is a "fake state" in utter disorder. Fixing it requires sustained presence. There's the crux of the "exit" issue -- who stays to build?

ECOWAS is 16 poor African nations -- aid recipients, not donors. The best non-governmental relief and development organizations are already overtaxed.

The African, European and American consensus seems to be to use American forces to stop Liberia's killers. The Bush administration needs to use this crisis as an opportunity to pursue a grander political consensus: America will stop the killers, but other nations must supply the builders.

France crabs about American "hyperpower," though hyperpower puts Marines in Monrovia. What Liberia needs is "hammer power" -- long-term developmental support. That's difficult, and it's expensive. Still, it's the only way to make any entrance worth the effort.

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