Liberia is a big mess right now. That’s nothing new; what’s new is that for once it’s making the front page.
Liberia was a mess in 1985, when I was there. I had a friend who lived half a mile down Old Road Congotown from me; I’ve long-since forgotten his name. His American mother lived with him in a well-guarded compound, and his Liberian father, a friend of Charles Taylor, lived in Lesotho because it wasn’t safe for him at home. Charles Taylor was in the States, but would be coming back to make trouble for President Doe someday soon — that was what my friend said, anyway, and we spent plenty of time wondering just how it would all go down. There was no question that Doe was thoroughly and dangerously corrupt, and that whoever did him in would be a hero.
In November, Thomas Quiwonkpa, Doe’s second-in-command, beat Taylor to the punch and attempted a coup, though many assumed that Taylor was actually behind it. I remember several days of staying at home away from the windows, occasionally hearing gunfire in the distance. The coup was put down, and stories circulated about the very grisly deaths that the rebels had met. Days later, walking down the street to my piano lesson with Trudi Ippel, I heard a truck lumbering up being me, and my nose crunched up at the terrible, pungent, and wholly unfamiliar smell that wafted from it. As it passed me I thought I saw bodies piled up in the back.
My family was back in the States by the time Taylor staged the rebellion that eventually brought an end to Doe and plunged Liberia into seven years of civil war. Somebody sent us a picture of the ruin our old house — it had been hit by an air-to-ground missile. Some people we knew got out; others we never heard from again. Liberia was fresher in my mind in those days, and I remember being baffled at how little media coverage events were getting. But goodness, seven years — even I stopped keeping track after a while.
Taylor has proved himself just another power-hungry warlord, of course. I wonder if it’s what he always was, or if the scales tipped after one too many perks of power tasted or atrocities committed. Whatever the case, his ghosts have come knocking, and Monrovia is getting dragged back into hell.
What makes this time different? Why is it News this time, and not before? I think it has little to do with the nature of the crisis, and lots to do with American media. Optimistic spin: Post 9-11, the media is a lot more sensitive to international events, including this one. Pessimistic spin: The real story here is the question of intervention and its implications for Bush’s foreign policy.
Call me a pessimist. Will Bush Commit Troops? Will he continue to nation-build, just like he campaigned against doing, even though he’s neck-deep in it now? I could care less about his overall philosophy here — if intervention isn’t something that needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis, I don’t know what is. I know what I would think if I was living there right now, though. In 1985, even during an attemped coup that didn’t upset things for much more than a week, everybody was talking about what the U.S. would do, and whether they would send in troops. I have a powerful memory of seeing a couple U.S. Marines in front of the embassy, and feeling tremendously, deeply comforted by the knowledge that if things got really, truly bad, we could go there behind the big walls and be safe — that those big guys with the guns would point them at anyone who wanted to hurt us.
Half of Liberia’s revenues consist of foreign aid, and most of that is from the U.S. That it functions at all as a country is due to American money, American businesses, and American government projects (like the huge Voice of America compound, and the vast fields of sky-kissing antennae on the road from the airport that everybody assumed belonged to the CIA). Liberians have always seen the U.S. as a big brother, and I can’t adequately express how totally and utterly baffling it is to them that, when their streets run with blood, it barely registers with anyone there at all.
I imagine that after civil war through most of the 90’s, most Liberians have had to face the fact that they barely qualify as a blip on their big brother’s radar. They haven’t given up hope (or anger), though, otherwise they wouldn’t be piling up bodies in front of the American embassy. And why not? If the U.S. is willing to piss off its allies and bust its budget in order to unseat a teapot dictator half a world away, why wouldn’t they spare the miniscule effort it would take to safeguard what is, for all intents and purposes, one of its very own colonies, a place whose entire population could fit snugly into just half of Baghdad?
Memory and history are playing a role here, to be sure, but I can’t shake the notion that while we had no business going into Iraq, we have every business going into Liberia. And it’s not that I see them as qualitatively different when it comes to humanitarian need — it’s that Liberia is unambiguously America’s problem, and that it would take so little, so very little, in the scheme of things, to help heal what is now the barest husk of a nation.