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Liberia Is No Place for U.S. to Go Solo

July 23, 2003|Manthia Diawara | Manthia Diawara is a professor of comparative literature and African studies at New York University and author of "We Won't Budge: An African Exile in the World," (Basic Civitas, 2003).

Among the consequences of the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and its small coalition of "the willing" is the undermining of the authority of the United Nations and its Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as the spread of mistrust around the world.

Given that the U.N. could not prevent the invasion, it is now difficult for the world assembly to muster the authority needed to put together an impartial peacekeeping force to curtail the humanitarian disaster Liberia is suffering at the hands of its president, Charles Taylor. In fact, the Taylors of the world can go on butchering their own people, running guns, drugging and arming child-soldiers and smuggling "blood diamonds" without fear of the world's moral authority.

Like Saddam Hussein, Taylor is considered a megalomaniac by many nations, a monstrous killer who sometimes sees himself as a prophet in direct communication with God.

He has backed rebel forces in neighboring countries, contributing to the destabilization of the entire West African region. A U.N. tribunal has indicted him for supplying guns to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, fueling a war that killed more than 500,000 and mutilated many more. In Liberia, the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy is in Monrovia, the capital city, ready to attack the presidential palace and kick Taylor out.

The problem now is how to get rid of Taylor without further bloodshed and without a repeat of his horrific crimes.

Should a U.N. coalition force of African peacekeepers establish order and arrest Taylor to put him on trial? Or should Washington alone act as peacekeeper until a peaceful solution is found?

Ironically, even though Annan has been among those objecting to U.S. unilateral actions, he is now suggesting that because of historical ties between the U.S. and Liberia, the Bush administration should be solely responsible for sending in troops to secure the peace.

Taylor and the rebels have also called on Washington for help, and even the other West African leaders believe that the U.S. must step in to solve the problem in Liberia. Nigeria has offered asylum to Taylor, hoping to make the job easier for the Bush administration.

Only Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, seems reluctant to endorse such U.S. intervention in Liberia. (He may be worried about setting a precedent that would allow Britain to send troops to invade Zimbabwe, South Africa's next-door neighbor, to forcibly remove dictator Robert Mugabe from power. Zimbabwe is a former British colony.)

There is no doubt that Taylor's regime, like Hussein's in Iraq, is a threat to world peace and democracy.

A continuing crisis in Liberia only adds to the troubles of all of West Africa, which is already grappling with anarchy, tribalism and corruption in Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia and with weak democracies in Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Benin. A failed state in Liberia would allow for money-laundering by terrorists there and would force more African flight from Africa to Europe and the U.S.

Despite such a catastrophic scenario and despite the various pleas for U.S. action, this country should not intervene unilaterally in Liberia. Sending American troops alone to Liberia will only temporarily solve the problem.

Further, even with Annan's blessing, relying on the U.S. to rescue Liberia, as France and Britain have done in the past in their old colonies of Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, only affirms neocolonial intervention in Africa. It points to the failure of Africans to resolve their own problems and to the ineffectiveness of the U.N. in conflict resolutions. Ultimately, it heightens the chances that any major power will intervene where it deems another country is a failed or rogue state.

Instead, the U.S. should move into the background, taking a role in an impartial U.N.-led coalition of African peacekeepers in Liberia, which should be formed in conjunction with the newly organized African Union. It should send arms and aid to the effort, but not soldiers.

This is not only the best course of action for a lasting solution in Liberia and for the future of Africa, it is the best way for the U.S. to defend its own interests. By working within a U.N.-led effort, the U.S. would position itself to gain the broad coalition it now says it needs to reconstruct Iraq and create an opportunity for the U.N. to regain its moral legitimacy in the eyes of Americans and the world.

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