Tuesday, July 01, 2003

With the devastating civil war raging in Liberia and rebels closing in on the capital of that West African country, there is now talk of a UN-led intervention force in Liberia; the Bush administration is under some pressure to contribute American troops. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran editorials today in favor of intervention. Much to my surprise, the question leaves me feeling very ambivalent.

Anyone who has read my recent writings knows my feelings toward evil Charles Taylor, the dictator and indicted war criminal who the rebels are sworn to overthrow. More explicitly, I can't think of another human being on the planet who I despise more than Charles Taylor. I would support nearly anything that I believed would remove this blight on humanity who has done nothing but reek havoc, chaos, displacement and murder which has affected tens of millions of West Africans, not just his own countrymen.

I am not opposed to internationally-authorized humanitarian intervention on prinicple. In fact, I tend to support it if it will help. But just as I don't oppose it on ideological grounds, I don't support it reflexively either. While no one can guarantee 100% success in peacekeeping, the Hippocratic oath applies: first, do no harm. I am not convinced that an international intervention would do no harm.

I must clairify for emphasis. I do not mean that American or international troops would be committing atrocities. But rather, the objective of such an intervention would be to bring the war toward its conclusion, rather than prolonging it. I am not confident that this would happen.

Conceive, for a moment, what would happen if an American or international force went to Liberia, even upon the ostensible invitation of Taylor and the rebels. What would it do? Likely, it would act as a buffer between Taylor's men and the two rebel groups. Since Taylor wants to cling desperately to power and since the rebel groups' sole stated objective is to get rid of Taylor, it is difficult to imagine what sort of negotations could occur. The intervention force would simply be allowing the two groups to bide time and re-arm themselves. You don't need me to elaborate what would probably happen next. Allowing warring groups to catch their breath and re-arm, to participate in even bloodier and longer-lasting battles, would this be doing no harm or would it be prolonging the agony?

As someone who's lived in one of Liberia's neighbors and who knew several Liberians, I bring perhaps a different perspective to the debate. This perspective explains my passion for Liberia and the depth of my hatred of Taylor, but it also offers gave me a historical understanding of the country and region.

Liberia's first civil war (1989-97) offers a cautionary tale to the present situation. Just as Taylor's troops were rolling through the country and were on the verge of capturing Monrovia (the capital) in 1990, the West African Economic Community decided to send a "peacekeeping" force, called ECOMOG, to protect Monrovia's civilians. This is similiar to what is being proposed now for the UN and/or US.

ECOMOG comprised mostly Nigerian troops but also men from Guinea, Ghana and other West African countries. All the groups hated ECOMOG, because it was perceived as a barrier to any of them gaining absolute power. ECOMOG quickly became seen as a warring faction just like the others and was targeted as such. It really didn't end up doing much except enriching Nigerian generals.

Some have argued that ECOMOG's intevention was actually WORSE than doing nothing because it prolonged the war and its atrocities by over 6 years. Without ECOMOG, Taylor's troops likely would've captured Monrovia by 1991 and the hostilities would've mostly ended then. And Taylor, whose ascession to power ECOMOG was designed to prevent, ended up becoming leader anyway.

If the US and/or UN were to intervene, I don't expect the corruption problem. The force would be enthusiastically welcomed by the civilian population (who demonstrated in front of the American embassy in Monrovia for intervention), much the same way Sierra Leonians welcomed the British intervention a few years ago. But the force would surely be treated hostily by the three warring factions, once they re-armed. It would get extremely messy.

I don't think we should militarily intervene just for the sake of intervening (ie: for the sake of falsely assuaging our consciences). The ECOMOG example serves as a cautionary tale in that regard. We should also make our intended course clear and unamiguous. Rwanda and Srebenica are two examples of how giving false hope is more cruel than remaining silent.

The international community has few non-military options left. There's already an arms embargo on Liberia and, I believe, timber and diamond embargoes as well. I think Taylor, who is believed to have links with al-Qaeda via the blood diamond trade, is banned from travelling to the US or the EU. That combined with his indictment for war crimes limits the options pretty tightly.

What should we (ie: the US and Europe) do? We should certainly be prepared to send humanitarian aid and assistance as soon as is practicable. We should hope the rebels take power quickly and that Taylor's troops offer little resistance, although that hasn't happened so far. If the rebels do take power, we should work with them to help stabilize the country, encourage them to implement the rule of law and use any leverage we have to make sure they don't screw up; in general, they're not an especially savory bunch either so we should keep an eye on them.

If the West Africans want to send their own intervention force, the US doesn't need to commit our own troops but we should be willing to offer any technical assistance they may require. Leaders like Thabo Mbeki often talk "African solutions to African problems." We should encourage this and offer any ancilary help necessary.

Something simple like this might have abated the Rwandan genocide. East African countries wanted to intervene in Rwanda, but the Clinton administration refused to LEASE them military equipment their armies needed to stop the slaughter.

Too often, reacting to such a crisis is seen as an all (we must send our own troops) or nothing (we must turn our heads away and pretend it doesn't exist) affair. We must realize there are many different ways of reacting to such a crisis other than this simplistic dichotomy.

Otherwise, I think we should let the war play itself out, hope the rebels win quickly and be prepared to help out civilians after that happens. This is not a very satisfactory thing for me to write. It does not sound very compassionate, especially considering it affects people from a country to which I have ties. But it's precisely because of these ties that I recognize the difficult nuances of this situation. Letting the war play itself out may sound cruel, but prolonging the agony is even crueler. Well-intentioned people must realize that this is one of those heartwrenching disasters where no solution is good. Only one that is least agonizing.

First, do no harm.


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