Rescuing Liberia from itself

President George W. Bush has said the United States is “in the process of determining what is necessary to maintain the cease-fire and to allow for a peaceful transfer of power” in Liberia. He also said the United States will participate in this stabilizing process in some shape or form. Questions abound: How deeply should the United States be involved in the stabilization of Liberia and what would participation in this process entail?

One thing is for certain: Any involvement will prove exhausting. Liberia, after years of civil war, has become a complex swirl of competing interests. Yet to make only a token effort in attempting to prevent the African nation from sinking into violent chaos is not acceptable: The United States must make a significant good-faith effort to save Liberia from further death and destruction.

Liberia was founded more than 150 years ago by freed American slaves of African origin. From its beginning, development in Liberia has been retarded by various struggles between the repatriating ex-slaves and the area’s indigenous peoples. However, by the second half of the 20th century, the nation experienced some modernization and integration success. Steady improvement came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s, however, as the military dictatorship of Samuel Doe – a government backed by the United States – led the country into economic and social ruin.

Beginning in 1989, Liberia experienced a series of civil wars and fragile cease-fires. All told, this recent civil strife has claimed more than 150,000 lives. In 1997, current Liberian President Charles Taylor rose to power. Civil strife did not end with Taylor’s ascent to power.

Recently, Taylor agreed to step down as president under one condition – that an international peacekeeping force occupies the country. Taylor is opposed to unilateral U.S. involvement in Liberia because of his contention that the main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is a covert fighting force of the United States. The group consists of several different factions aligned together in opposition to Taylor’s government. Whether these factions maintain peace with each other after Taylor’s removal remains to be seen.

Despite these complexities, significant U.S. assistance to Liberia must happen, even if it causes Taylor to remain in Liberia temporarily. The moral imperative to prevent the disintegration of a country and the shocking violence that often accopmanies this process – think Rwanda and Yugoslovia – leaves the United States no other choice but to intervene strongly.

A carefully planned course of action in Liberia must incorporate the lessons learned from U.S. missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq. First, proper intervention in Liberia requires full commitment, a commitment level now lacking in Afghanistan, and some argue, Iraq. Success in Liberia will only occur if the United States does not cut corners. Second, the United States should not work with any particular warlord or rebel group in the Liberian conflict like it did in Afghanistan. Finally, intervention needs to focus on stabilization and humanitarian aid; injecting a U.S. mission with military and strategic initiatives would compromise the primary objective of intervention: stabilizing and eventually democratizing Liberia.