Jewish World Review July 7, 2003 / 7 Tamuz, 5763

Zev Chafets

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It's a mistake to send troops to Liberia


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | In the runup to the invasion of Iraq, opponents of the war asked: Once the U.S. decides to police the world, where will it stop?

I've got the answer: Liberia.

There's no doubt that Liberia is a mess. It was a mess before 1980, when Master Sgt. Samuel Doe overthrew the government, murdering President William Tolbert and 13 cabinet ministers. It was a mess in 1990, when rivals kicked Doe out, legendarily forcing him to eat his own ears before administering the coup de grace. And it has been in a mess ever since, the scene of endless civil war.

This is a war about nothing. No ideology is involved. No principle is at stake. No American interest is threatened. Very simply, forces loyal to President Charles Taylor are fighting rebels over control of diamond smuggling and other Liberian economic enterprises.

The fighting has created a great deal of suffering, and there is pressure on President Bush to send in the Marines. Interestingly, most of the Liberia hawks - the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean and former Clintonistas - were doves on Iraq.

The hawks don't claim that America has economic or security interests in Liberia. In fact, that is their rationale for intervention: Sending troops is okay precisely because the U.S. would be disinterested.

But there are humanitarian crises all over the globe. Why should the U.S. send troops to Liberia?

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The hawks reply that Liberia was founded by former American slaves. The U.S. needs to get involved for sentimental reasons. But this is a dubious proposition. The founders of independent Liberia in 1847 returned to Africa with a slave-owner mentality. These Americo-Liberians became a ruling aristocracy that brutally subdued the tribes of the hinterland and, in some cases, enslaved them. Always a minority, today they make up less than 3% of Liberia's population of 3.3 million.

As for the historical ties, Liberia traditionally has been treated by the U.S. as a very distant relation. Washington really noticed the place only after Firestone built a massive rubber plantation there in the 1920s. Later, Liberia mattered because of its strategic position on the west coast of Africa. But when the Cold War ended, so did any actual American interest in the country.

This is the basis on which the hawks want the U.S. to dispatch troops "to restore order." Order to a land that has known nothing but disorder for a generation and whose children are armed with AK-47s.

You want a quagmire? Here's a quagmire. So far, Bush gets it. While dispatching a few military experts to assess possible action, the President continues to condition intervention on the departure of Charles Taylor.

Bush doesn't want to be the one to depose Taylor himself, because he wisesly fears getting caught in a civil war with no good guys on either side.

If Taylor loses and goes, the U.S. can send troops to stabilize whatever new government takes over. Until then, sending troops invites disaster.

Which leaves the humanitarian issue: Who will stop the slaughter?

That is a job for Africans - specifically, the Economic Community of West African States - backed by the UN. If these organizations want Western troops, let them turn to Canada, Belgium, France and other advocates of multilateralism. America's role should be limited to providing diplomatic and economic support.

There are countries in Africa where the U.S. has a genuine stake. Nigeria, for example, because of oil; Kenya, now a battlefield in the war against Al Qaeda, or South Africa, to which the U.S. feels a far greater emotional tie than to Liberia. The welfare and security of these nations are vital American interests.

The future of Liberia is not.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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