July 21, 2003

July 21, 2003 | Commentary on Africa

Liberating Liberia

Finally, a regime change we can all agree upon. Not North Korea's Kim Jong Il this time. Or even Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. But Liberia's bad boy Charles Taylor.


Taylor, known as the "Milosevic of Africa" and trained as a guerilla fighter by Moammar Khadafy in the 1980s, has been wreaking havoc in his native Liberia since his insurrection in December 1989.


Not satisfied with conquering Liberia, Taylor and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) militia turned their sights on neighboring Sierra Leone in 1991. Their goal: take over that country's diamond mines. In the resulting civil war, the RUF became infamous for hacking off its victims' limbs and using drug-addicted child-soldiers. (Taylor also exploits child-soldiers in Liberia.) Because of his conduct in the Sierra Leonean civil war, the U.N. wants Taylor for "crimes against humanity."


Having returned from his Africa trip, President Bush seems to have decided to assist Taylor's long overdue departure by sending some number of American troops to Liberia in an effort to return stability to the Western African nation. America's national interests in Liberia are limited but arguably warrant U.S. attention. The president is right to limit the size and duration of any troop commitment to this effort.


Indeed, America has a unique history with Liberia. Freed American slaves founded it. But sentimentality is not a good basis for foreign policy. And this special history imposes no special moral obligation on America.


There are humanitarian reasons for intervening. The country's been wracked by years of fighting, and 200,000 have been killed. But America's military shouldn't necessarily be undertaking global social work either.


The most important basis for American intervention is national security interests. And it can be argued that the United States does have some potential national security concerns in Liberia, namely terrorism.


First, according to a report by European law enforcement agencies, in 2000 and 2001 (pre-9/11), Taylor sold diamonds to al Qaeda. The terrorist organization moved as much as $20 million into commodities to outmaneuver the international effort to freeze al Qaeda assets following the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Removing Taylor and bringing him to justice would help stem this problem.


Second, there is legitimate concern that parts of Africa could become a safe haven or breeding ground for terrorism. The U.N. Special Court on Sierra Leone claims Taylor is harboring terrorists from the Middle East, including al Qaeda and Hezbollah


President Bush should look closely at the possibility of using the 1999 East Timor peacekeeping model. In that operation, the Australians provided leadership to the international force, while Washington provided intelligence, communications and logistics support.


In Liberia, the expected 1,500- to 2,000-troop Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeeping contingent is going to need strong leadership to succeed. How about the Brits? They have a significant interest in neighboring Sierra Leone and have conducted successful operations there - including rescuing the U.N. peacekeepers who were held hostage by the rebels. Perhaps London could provide the necessary leadership to the African peacekeepers while receiving rear area support from the United States.


Or what about our pals in Paris? With strong colonial ties in West Africa and troops in neighboring Cote D'Ivoire, France could match their big power rhetoric with big power deeds for a change.


Despite historical ties, American national interests in Liberia are limited. The United States can make a contribution to ending 14 years of strife in this Western African country before unrest again spreads to its neighbors or becomes a place terrorists call home.


But the U.S. should not assume the lion's share of a Liberian intervention.


Peter Brookes, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in the New York Post