More on Liberian Intervention

Alan Sullivan of Fresh Bilge made some comments on my original Liberia post that deserve a good response:

I disagree with your premises here. The U.S. had every business (including oil business) in Iraq, but it has none in Liberia. Yes, the “nation” of Liberia started as an American resettlement project, but consider its history. The returnees lorded it over the locals for a century, until this artificial order broke. No one would want the Tubmans back. What would you have Americans install in their place? Some local version of Aristede? Haiti has not exactly “healed,” and there’s no reason to expect any positive result of an intervention in Liberia. Taylor will soon be done, then Monrovia will improve from calamitous to tragic.

Alan knows his Liberian history — up until 1980, Americo-Liberians served as a minority ruling class. They built plantation houses modeled after the homes of their erstwhile masters, many of which are still around. Samuel Doe’s coup was a bloody but inevitable response on the part of one of the local tribes (he was Krahn). A lot of the conflict since has been inter-tribal in nature, including the attempted coup in ’85. (Somebody must have already written a definitive book about the way tribalism and ethnic conflict undergird so many regional problems worldwide, and the way that these things inevitably erupt when the oppressive colonial power is no longer there to keep a lid on things. Anyone know what the book is?) With Taylor, we’re back to an Americo-Liberian, though their power base as a social class has been shattered.

Alan is right — no one wants the Tubmans back. And there’s very little chance that having the U.S. hand-pick a leader will turn out well. But I don’t think the case for intervention rests on that. The case is admittedly more short-term: people are dying. Many more will probably die. It’s going to eventually end and things will be a little better, but can the U.S. do something in the meantime to reduce that loss of life, and should it? Stepping in will inevitably burden the U.S. with additional nation-building responsibility, but as far as that goes, I don’t think our involvement will make the outcome any worse than just letting things play out. (Let me to rush to clarify that that’s my opinion in this specific case, not as a general rule.) Three factors tip the scales in favor of intervention for me:

1. The U.S. has a high degree of individual responsibility for Liberia, not just for historical reasons but because of the current extent of political, economic, and social involvement.
2. Though there is no significant self-interest involved here, there is humanitarian interest, and the relatively tiny amount of money and military force that it would take to stabilize the situation makes it worth the effort.
3. The majority of Liberians, especially the innocent, noncombatant citizens in the line of fire, want and even expect U.S. involvement. I don’t have any absolute proof of this, but it’s what the media has been reporting, and unless Liberian public opinion has swayed significantly since I was there, the extent of this desire is being understated, if anything.

Ultimately, then, the positive result I hope that intervention will provide is simply that fewer people will die, not that all Liberia’s problems will be solved. And if someone is going to do intervention, I would much rather see the U.S. do it than Nigeria, the only other power who’s stepping up. I trust Nigeria far less to act with the best interests of Liberians at heart, partly because of that country’s own instability, and partly because of their spotty track record when it comes to West African intervention. U.S. involvement is certainly fraught with problems, but in this case it’s the best of a bunch of bad options.