U.S. history mandates intervention in Liberian crisis, says Le Vine

Civil strife and violence in Liberia has produced numerous calls for U.S. military involvement, but should America heed these calls? Victor T. Le Vine, professor emeritus of political science in Arts & Sciences, contends the United States has a moral imperative to take action in Liberia based on strong historical ties to the nation.

Victor LeVine

Victor LeVine

In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch commentary, Le Vine explains how the United State brought Liberia into existence and has in the past supported an unjust social system hostile to indigenous people. “We owe the Liberians some relief from the brutal lot we helped to create,” he argues.

LeVine, an expert on terrorism and political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, is available to the media for further discussion of the current situation in Liberia.

Commentary: Past U.S. Involvement May Require Help Today

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the News and Analysis section on Saturday, July 20, 2003)

By Victor T. Le Vine

Charles Taylor, who rarely speaks the truth, said that the United States owes it to Liberia to intervene to save it. This time he may have been right, though perhaps unwittingly, since it does appear that we do need to save (or help save) the country from the horrors he and his enemies have visited upon it since December 1989.

That was the month when Taylor and his small band of rebels — trained in Libya, allied to the murderous Sierra Leonean warlord Foday Sankoh, and provisioned by Liberia’s neighbors — unleashed the bloody seven-year civil war which killed 200,000 and displaced some 1.5 million of Liberia’s 2.3 people.

A cease-fire was reached in 1996 between the warring factions, and in 1997, national elections were held at Taylor’s insistence. Taylor stood for president and campaigned on the promise that if he were not elected, he would restart the civil war. Not surprisingly, he won with 75 percent of the vote.

Taylor’s administration turned out to be as brutal and corrupt as that of his predecessor, ex-Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, and before long (by the year 2000) a rampaging rebel force much like the one Taylor organized started a rebellion against Taylor himself.

Fast forward to June and July of this year, with Taylor’s forces penned up in Monrovia and his enemies in control of most of the country. Unaware of the ironies involved, the rebels unabashedly call themselves LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

In the meantime, British soldiers ended the revolt in Sierra Leone (next door, west), and French soldiers who had intervened at the request of the Côte d’Ivoire government (next door, east) had put down the mutiny in that country and patched together a new ruling council.

So we come to mid-July, and the much-abused citizens of Monrovia, again threatened with bloody anarchy, plus Kofi Annan and the west African states that had earlier sent peacekeepers, raise a cry for American military intervention. “You owe it us,” says Taylor, who agrees to leave power, but not before he gets safe passage out of Monrovia so that his enemies don’t get to tear him to pieces, as happened to Sgt. Doe at the hands of those who unhorsed him.

Most Liberians agree that the United States should intervene, given that the United States is as close to being Liberia’s former colonial ruler as you can get, and because (as one young man said on TV), “We’ve always considered ourselves to be America’s 51st state!”

Bottom line question: how did we come to acquire what everyone in the region (except, perhaps, most Americans) sees as a moral responsibility to save the Liberians? One reason is that the United States, which never had colonies in Africa, not only sent black American settlers to Liberia (15,386 between 1820 and 1899), but pretty much oversaw the creation of the Republic of Liberia (in 1847). During the next 150 years, the United States repeatedly intervened in Liberia to prevent political and economic collapses.

And in fact, the moral dimension of the American stewardship of the Liberian enterprise was proudly proclaimed from the beginning by its American sponsors. The American Colonization Society, which attempted to solve the problems of slavery by the removal of freed slaves to colonies along the west African coast, argued that this course would atone for the evils of the slave trade, help put an end to slavery, restore Africans to their “divinely ordained” homes, and help civilize Africa.

The ACS and the African colonization enterprise gained the support not only of President James Monroe, during whose administration Liberia itself was set up, but also of such men as Stephen A. Douglas, Francis Scott Key, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Marshall, and Presidents James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore, and James Buchanan. Even Lincoln professed support for Liberian colonization, though by the end of the Civil War and black emancipation the movement had pretty well lost its impetus.

The point is the United States and its government was there from the beginning, helping with the organization of emigration, the procurement of ships for the passage, subsidies for the colonists and then, assistance to the new Liberian government formed in 1847 (though we withheld formal recognition until 1862).

From the beginning it was all seen as a noble enterprise, the more so because it gave added purpose to the abolitionist cause and appealed to the Christian missionary spirit that imbued many of its most active leaders and supporters.

What the ACS and its official and private supporters could not have foreseen was that in mandating a “civilizing mission” for the settlers (who later came to be known as Americo-Liberians), the United States also gave official sanction to 150 years of what amounted to colonial rule by the settlers and their descendants over Liberia’s indigenous peoples. The settlers created a system of government which, though ostensibly modeled after that of the United States, perpetuated not only Americo-Liberian elite rule, but also, for the natives, conditions of semi-slavery, forced labor, and brutal exploitation. Here then, already in the mid-19th century, were sown the seeds of the murderous rage of those who finally brought down the Americo-Liberian establishment in 1980. The best, or worst, part of the story is that the United States was always there in a supporting role; we were always there when Liberia needed us. In 1819 Congress voted $100,000, at the time considered an extravagant sum, to start the colony. During much of the 19th century, private donations and federal subsidies kept Liberia afloat whenever political crises, the corruption of Liberian leaders, and local rebellions threatened to sink it. In 1909, when the country was ready to declare bankruptcy, a financial rescue was engineered by Teddy Roosevelt, and in 1912, the United States imposed a receivership of customs and sent in troops to help train Liberia’s police.

After World War I, in 1926, the Liberian government, again on the verge of bankruptcy, to all intents and purposes turned the economy over to the management of the Firestone Rubber and Tire Company, which had obtained a huge concession of over 1 million acres for a rubber plantation. That rubber proved invaluable to the Allies during World War II, fueling an economic boom and bringing William V.S. Tubman to the Liberian White House (yes, that’s what they called it).

Tubman proved a staunch ally of the United States and it was he who initiated the first — albeit unfortunately belated — attempts to bring the indigenous populations into the country’s political life. He died before he could finish his fifth term in office, and was succeeded by his Vice President, William Tolbert, who proved woefully inadequate as President.

Finally, in 1980, the long-repressed anger of the indigenous peoples spilled over in the form of Sgt. Doe’s coup. Initially, Doe’s soldiers not only slaughtered President Tolbert, his family, and some 24 members of his cabinet, but then they gathered up some 16 of the leading Americo-Liberian politicians, marched them to a nearby beach, tied each to a pole, and executed the whole lot.

The United States, however, remained steadfast to Liberia, and as Doe presented newly minted anti-Communist credentials to Washington, he was rewarded with a state visit to the United States and the White House. (On that occasion President Reagan famously presented Doe as “Chairman Moe,” perhaps mistaking him for Chinese Communist Chairman Mao Tse-tung.)

Doe lasted until 1990, when one of his enemies captured, tortured and maimed him to death, barbarities captured on a videotape that still circulates in west Africa. Taylor came next, replacing Doe as Liberia’s tormentor-in-chief.

Clearly, as the creators of Liberia, the main bulwark of the 150-year long rule of the Americo-Liberians, as its principal financial backer and economic developer, and above all, as the well-meaning (but tragically misguided) co-architect of its misery, we owe the Liberians some relief from the brutal lot we helped to create.

A 2,000-man peacemaking or peacekeeping brigade, working in tandem with a 3,000-man West African Economic Community force, a combo suggested by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, could just help settle things down in Liberia and give the Liberians some hope for their future, for the first time in over 20 years. We owe it to them.

Copyright 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.