July 31, 2003

July 31, 2003 | Commentary on Africa

Military Humanitarianism

The news that President Bush has ordered three warships with some 2,500 marines to the waters off the coast of Liberia in West Africa creates an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The president has commendably made a commitment to a new engagement with Africa, but should that extend to the deployment of U.S. forces? Allegedly, the U.S. marines are only there as a stopgap measure until the United Nations and the West African nations get a promised peacekeeping force together. This, however, is not a reassuring prospect.

 

For one thing, the United Nations has a very spotty record on peacekeeping. For another, the United States has previously been badly burned on a similar humanitarian mission in Africa. We should have learned some lessons since the Somalia debacle of the early 1990s. Where there is no enforceable peace settlement, the law of unintended consequences often carries the day, and the results of our intervention become unpredictable. Also, with misery plentiful enough around the world, U.S. military resources quickly become over committed. 

 

It was just over a decade ago, in December 1992, that the President George H. W. Bush, the president's father, sent American troops to Somalia to deliver food and other humanitarian aid in the midst of starvation caused by drought, warlords and raging civil war. The pictures of misery and starving children were played night after night on the news. It was a well-intended effort, which I, for one, at least initially supported.

 

But it was not a successful one, despite the deployment of 28,000 U.S. troops and thousands more from allied countries. While starvation was momentarily alleviated in parts of Somalia, the ravages of the warlords persisted, and with the country awash in imported weapons, there was little our troops could do. As President Clinton decided to keep U.S. troops in Somalia for nation-building purposes under U.N. banner, his administration failed to grant them the military equipment they needed. As a consequence, 26 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in a disastrous raid on warlord positions in Mogadishu in October of 1993. They died for no good reason. 

 

Indeed, the experience was so bad that when an actual genocide took place a few years later in Rwanda, involving the two major ethnic groups, very few people had the stomach to intervene. Hutus slaughtered Tutsis with impunity by the hundreds of thousands. The U.S. military performed well in setting up water purification in refugee camps in neighboring Congo for the millions of fleeing Rwandans. Before long, however, the very same camps became a problem, hiding places for war criminals that terrorized the population and launched raids against Rwanda's fledging new government, as it struggled for control.

 

Would Liberia be in any measure different from Somalia? There is admittedly an oft-cited historical connection that has made calls for U.S. action from Liberians and, ironically enough the United Nations, a factor. Liberia, "land of the free," was founded by freed American slaves. Its capitol is named after President James Monroe. Yet, few people realize that today only 2.5 percent of its population are descendants of these settlers.

 

While Liberia's political situation is hardly more promising than Somalia's. Ragtag rebel forces have been fighting for control against the army of President Charles Taylor for over a decade. Taylor has promised to go into exile in Nigeria, but has so far failed to make good on his pledge. He came to power following a coup in 1987 against another outrageous dictator, President Samuel Roe. In such a situation, where there is no peace to keep, American troops would essentially be combatants on one side in the conflict, though identifying the two sides can be hard enough in the chaos on the ground.

 

Today, the United States has 150,000 troops in Iraq, engaged in a post-combat operation that will last for years in all probability. We have some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan with much the same purpose of establishing a secure and peaceful environment, conducive to the growth of civil society. We have 8,000 troops in the Balkans on peacekeeping missions, with no end in sight after eight years on the ground. Each of these operations requires committing three times the number of troops actually deployed because of rotation requirements. In addition, we have the 37,000 troops stationed permanently in South Korea and 43,000 in Japan. All this is out of a standing military force of 1.4 million.   

 

At a time when we are fighting the war on terrorism, U.S. troop deployments should be focused on American national security needs. Right now, that means Iraq, Afghanistan, and it may come to mean North Korea as well. This is not the time to return to experimenting with military humanitarianism.

 

Helle Dale is deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Africa