Liberia Readings

I’ve come across a couple of articles recently that are must-reads for anyone interested in Liberia. The situation there remains awful, though better than it was a month ago.

First there’s “Liberia is chained to its past,” by Roger Morris, who was an NSC adviser for Johnson and Nixon. (This article is in the Toronto Globe and Mail; he wrote a very similar one for the L.A. Times that I can’t find a direct link to.) It is a deeply cynical survey of Liberia’s history and America’s involvement thereof, but that doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Liberia’s history could make a cynic out of anybody. He begins:

As the Liberian civil war flickered across the news this summer, there was at least a glimpse of its appalling cost. Untold dead and dying, atrocities, armies of gang-pressed children, half a nation’s people left refugees — it all seemed to be symbolized by a photo of a frantic-eyed, eight-year-old boy crouching on a rubble-strewn street in Monrovia, automatic weapon cradled in his small arms, a ragged teddy bear tucked in his backpack.

Liberia’s tragedy grew relentlessly out of its shrouded history, a past largely shaped by the United States. The freed American slaves who founded it in 1821, sponsored by a white America glad to resettle unwanted citizenry of colour, promptly mimicked the antebellum South they had fled, an irony with fateful consequences.

What follows is a litany of woe with a constant theme — selfish U.S. involvement with no eye for the consequences on Liberia itself. Most of it was review for me, though I hadn’t heard this before:

Covertly, Liberia also became the centre of an earlier war on terrorism, this one against Libya. Monrovia was a principal CIA base for clandestine operations targeting the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, climaxing in the 1986 U.S. bombing raid on Tripoli . . . Roberts Field was also a major transit point in the late 1980s for CIA resupply of the UNITA guerrillas fighting the Angolan government.

Morris has big problems with U.S. policy toward Liberia at every step, up to the present day:

The Bush administration’s new interest in the country, coinciding with the President’s trip to Africa and the latest civil turmoil, is no less cynical. Mr. Bush’s call for Mr. Taylor’s departure can be traced to a revived U.S. stake in a dependable regime in Liberia — to the need for it again as a listening post in an open-ended war on terror, and not least as part of regional stability in a West Africa emerging as a major supplier of oil and natural gas.

This is where I�m not sure I agree, though. I wouldn’t characterize Bush’s recent actions with respect to Liberia as “interest,” but rather “doing as little as he absolutely must.” There’s something to the regional stability argument, but the cornerstone to all of that is Nigeria, not Liberia. If the U.S. was really interested in milking Liberia as a jumping-off point for local power politics and the W on T, they sure have an odd way of going about it. This in turn makes me wonder about some of Morris’ other assertions, like the extent of Liberia’s usefulness in the Cold War as quoted above. Thing is, I can’t imagine what he’d have to gain by spinning things in this particular way right now. If anything, the fact that he’s writing so vehemently suggests that he’s looking for an outlet to speak some truths that have been eating at him for a while. Is there an angle here that I’m missing?

Second article: “Years of War Leave Liberia Hollow,” by Emily Wax. I hesitate to use the word, but there�s no way around it: this piece is heartbreaking. It’s a short profile of postwar Liberia and the wreckage that’s been left behind. There’s nothing left. Iraq is a paradise in comparison.

“To be very honest, for the past 14 years we haven’t been able to protect our citizens, and it breaks us,” said Moses Gelear Sayon Jr., 53, director of the National Firefighters of Liberia. “We used to have 14 firetrucks. We used to have land-line phones — yes, phones. Imagine! Everything was spoiled and stolen. It’s a disgrace to national service.”

The firefighters said they would reactivate the station and displayed a letter they had written to a firefighters association in the United States. They were joining the other fire stations around the capital, all looted and wrecked, in appealing to U.N. special envoy for funds to start a new fire department for Liberia.

The men talked about reviving a fire prevention program. Since they had no equipment, they said, they could teach fire prevention with a few matches and some paper.

“Drop and roll, at least we can teach that,” said Baryogar, who was in exile in Ghana when he watched televised scenes of U.S. firefighters helping save lives on Sept. 11, 2001. He said he just started weeping right there in the bar, over his beer.

“I kept thinking about Liberia,” he said, looking choked up, “and all those people we could have saved over the years.”

Where’s a Salam Pax for Liberia? One is not likely to arise in a country without computers, phones, electricity, or a majority of literate citizens. We spend billions to rebuild Iraq, most of it going toward the military occupation, while a fraction of that amount could put us well on the way toward repaying a debt borne of decades of callous indifference.

The hard pill to swallow is that that sort of help is not likely to come from the U.S. without the same sort of conditions as in years past, and the bitter irony is that even that sort of help would be better for Liberia than no help at all. This is the kind of situation that makes me glad there’s a United Nations, and wish that they had a stronger hand to play for helping nations in such extreme distress.

While writing this I keep thinking back to something on Unqualified Offerings from back in July (Jim writes in response to an article by Stephen Chapman):

Chapman notes that certain quarters denounce any reluctance to commit troops to Liberia as stemming from racism. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the enthusiasm for this type of adventure is often driven by racism — by a blithe conviction that these swarthy little foreigners with their tribes and factions and weapons cannot possibly be serious about their own goals, and that it will be a simple matter for the Great White Fathers and Mothers to put them in Time Out and then get them to behave. Don’t go there.

I have some problems with this. First of all, “enthusiasm” and “adventure” are poorly chosen words — no one is excited about the situation, and there’s nothing adventuresome about trying to avert even more tragedy and pick up the pieces of a broken nation. I’m not sure who, exactly, he’s ascribing blithe racist convictions to. Everyone that I’ve met with a concern for Liberia’s future, the NGO relief workers who are the tip of any foreign aid spear, are characterized not by we-know-better racism, but deep and admirable humility. They understand that, like the rest of West Africa, Liberia is a place working out from under a crippling historical burden. Give a bunch of white folks a couple centuries of slave trade followed by decades of exploitative colonialism, and they’ll be struggling for years against poverty and warlords and tribalism too. Give Liberians a clean slate, and of course they�d be able to take care of themselves without any help from the rest of the world, thank you very much. Unfortunately, history provides no clean slates, and doesn’t grant us or them that luxury.