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The white man’s burden

There is a case for intervening in Liberia, says Mark Steyn, but it is not one being urged by American liberals

2 August 2003

12:00 AM

2 August 2003

12:00 AM

New Hampshire

What happened to Liberia? Only three years ago, things were going swimmingly, at least according to President Charles Taylor’s Ministry of Information: ‘We say “well done” to Mr President, and advise him to always keep the communication highway free and clear of any hindrance, so that a people-to-leader and leader-to-people approach can be adopted and maintained, so that everyone will at least have the opportunity to have the ears of the Chief Executive, instead of a select few.’

By contrast, in 1990 only a select few got the opportunity to have the ears of the then Chief Executive, Samuel Doe. He’d fallen into the hands of Prince Johnson, one of Charles Taylor’s allies in the battle to unseat him. Johnson had President Doe stripped to his underpants and then barked into the camera, ‘That man won’t talk! Bring me his ear!’ The cameraman did a jerky about-face in time to catch Johnson’s guys holding down the President and slicing off his left ear.

‘Now the other ear,’ ordered Johnson. ‘The right ear.’ So the boys removed the right one. Then they made the President eat them. But the lads kept the best bits for themselves. They removed His Excellency’s genitals and then fought over them, in the belief that the ‘powers’ and ‘manhood’ of the person whose parts you’re eating are transferred to the eater.

Times change, and it’s now President Taylor’s lunchbox on the menu. He’s currently trying to avoid becoming just another ear-today-gone-tomorrow Liberian head of state. His former ally, Prince Johnson, has since fallen out with Taylor, relocated to Lagos, been ordained by the Christ Deliverance Ministry, and had a tearful reconciliation with Samuel Doe’s widow at the Synagogue Church of All Nations. He now regrets the whole ear-slicing thing, and the good news is he’s ready to come back and serve his country. So is his fellow warlord Roosevelt Johnson (no relation).

Currently, and somewhat improbably, Liberia has the ear of George W. Bush. With Iraq, there was no agreement on what the thing was about: it’s all about oil, said the anti-war crowd; it’s about the threat Saddam represents to the world, said the pro-crowd. But with Liberia there’s virtually unanimous agreement: the US has no vital national interest in the country; its tinpot tyrant is no threat to anybody beyond his backyard; the three warring parties are all disgusting and none has the makings of even a halfway civilised government. For many on the Right, these are reasons for steering clear of the place. For the Left, they’re why we need to send the Marines in right now.

It’s precisely the lack of any national interest that makes it appealing to the progressive mind. By intervening in Liberia, you’re demonstrating your moral purity. That’s why all the folks most vehemently opposed to American intervention in Iraq – from Kofi Annan to the Congressional Black Caucus – are suddenly demanding American intervention in Liberia. The New York Times is itching to get in: ‘Three weeks have passed since President Bush called on the Liberian President, Charles Taylor, to step aside, and pledged American assistance in restoring security. But there has been no definitive word here on how or when.

‘”Oh God, oh God, what do we do now?” wailed one woman in front of the entrance to the embassy…. A man yelled, “Why can’t the Americans come in to rescue us?”‘


Three weeks! And Bush is still just talking! The Times spent 14 months deploring the ‘rush to war’ in Iraq, but mulling over Liberia for three weeks is the worst kind of irresponsible dithering.

Likewise, Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean of Vermont. ‘I opposed the war in Iraq because it was the wrong war at the wrong time,’ says Governor Dean. But Liberia’s the right war any time: ‘Military intervention in Liberia represents an appropriate use of American power.’ And unlike that desert mess, Dean confidently predicts that US troops would ‘stabilise the situation and remain in Liberia for no more than several months’.

It makes sense to Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church – i.e., America’s Anglicans. On Iraq, he advocated endless jaw-jaw – ‘diplomatic and multilateral initiatives …a foreign policy that seeks to reconcile and heal…’ – but for Liberia he’s got the whiff of cordite in his nostrils, demanding immediate ‘peace-keeping forces to end the hostilities and achieve a ceasefire. Only then can an orderly transition be made from the current chaos to a legitimate and stable government.’

The New York Times managed to find at least one Liberian who’s got the message: ‘One young man held up a torn sheet of cardboard, his fury scrawled with a black marker. “G. Bush Killer Liberia,” it said.’ Wow! Forget Doe and Taylor and the various Johnsons: G. Bush Killer Liberia! Before a single warlord’s genital has yet slipped down Dubya’s gullet!

I’m an imperialist, and right now no one could use a little imperialism more than Africa. The British insertion into Sierra Leone was a good thing; Ivory Coast is on balance better off with the French on the ground. Why shouldn’t the Americans also have a little piece of the West African mosquito swamp? If a couple of thousand Marines can ‘stabilise’ Liberia, for a great power to deny them seems, as William F. Buckley put it, ‘parochial’. But the idea that the US would be there for ‘no more than several months’ and hand over to a ‘legitimate and stable government’ is ludicrous. If the Yanks are there for only a few months, the warlords will keep their ears close to the ground and bide their time. The intervention would be an intermission, after which the show would resume, as it has done after previous desultory interventions in the region.

When advocates of dispatching the Marines say Liberia’s a small, manageable nation of only three million people, they’re making the mistake of looking at the map. That Liberia doesn’t exist. The three contiguous West African nations in which the West has been called on to intervene have jumped, decisively, the borders drawn for them by 19th-century Europeans. Taylor is credited with having displaced not just (at one time or another) the entire population of his own country but also a significant chunk of the surrounding states’. Liberia’s only significant export to its neighbours is chaos. As early as a decade ago, 400,000 Liberians had fled to Sierra Leone, and 100,000 Sierra Leonians had fled to Liberia. In the course of the Nineties, more than one million Liberians and Sierra Leonians fled to Guinea and Ivory Coast. Next, half a million Ivorians fled to Guinea and other neighbouring countries when things went belly-up there.

Some of those Sierra Leonians in Liberia would like to flee back to Sierra Leone, and some of those Liberians in Ivory Coast fancy a change of displacement to Sierra Leone, and some of those Ivorians in Guinea are minded to check out the displaced persons’ scene in Burkina Faso. But if Howard Dean thinks this is a little light six months of ‘peacekeeping’, maybe he should volunteer for the Paul Bremer role.

Charles Taylor, a fellow most Americans had never heard of till a month ago, was educated in Boston. Most of the drunken teen thugs underneath him weren’t educated anywhere. And so, when interventionists argue that the leaderships of the various factions are exhausted and ready for a break, the question is whether the gun gangs they nominally control are also in the mood for a sabbatical. In the sprawling cities of West Africa, for the swollen population of unemployed and unemployable illiterate male youths, stealing and killing are pretty much the only rational career choices. In Liberia, male life-expectancy in the last five years has declined from 56 to 44 years; in Sierra Leone, it’s down to 32. Village life has drained away to t
he coastal shanty megalopolis, where crime and disease fill the civic and cultural vacuum.

The Congressional Black Caucus blames all this on the legacy of colonialism, but it would be more accurate to call it the legacy of post-colonialism or prematurely terminated colonialism. The first generation of the continent’s leaders were those LSE-educated Afro-Marxists who did such a great job at destroying their imperial inheritance. By the time that crowd faded from the scene, the Cold War was over and nobody needed African puppets. So today West Africans find themselves in a land beyond politics. You can’t seriously talk of these factions as being Marxist or Maoist or Blairite. None represents any coherent political platform. The video of Samuel Doe’s sudden loss of hearing predates the equivalent scene in Reservoir Dogs by a couple of years, but that’s the valid comparison: these are criminal operations, not political ones. The only difference is that the ear-slicing of Sam Doe wasn’t accompanied on the soundtrack by ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. That’ll be left for the US Marines to sing.

To most people in Britain, colonial Africa isn’t that long ago. It’s only a little over three decades since the Queen was Sierra Leone’s first post-independence head of state. But, in a land where male life-expectancy is 32, who remembers the late Sixties? Who remembers district commissioners and functioning schools and non-psychopathic police forces? These are cultures that, except for a few quaintly revived traditions like genital-eating, exist more and more completely in a present-tense dystopia. In the Atlantic Monthly a few years back, casting around for a phrase to describe the ‘citizens’ of such ‘states’, Robert D. Kaplan called them ‘re-primitivised man’. Demographic growth, environmental devastation, accelerated urbanisation and civic decay have reduced them to a far more primitive state than their parents and grandparents.

There are signs some Africans understand this. In January, the East African’s Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote a column musing on the resurgence of cannibalism, after the UN had reported that Ugandan-backed rebels in the Congo were making their victims’ relatives eat the body parts of their loved ones. ‘It also makes the point,’ he continued, ‘that while colonialism is bad, the coloniser who arrives by plane, vehicle, or ship is better – because he will have to build an airport, road, or harbour – than the one who, like the Ugandan army, arrived and withdrew from most of eastern Congo on foot.’

Just so. The would-be ‘liberators’ of Liberia, backed by Taylor’s enemies in neighbouring regimes, more or less guarantee that the country’s future will be as poor and vicious and diseased as they are.

So the question for the Americans is not whether you want to send 2,000 boys in to get picked off for a few months, until whichever warlord is willing to be bought can be installed as head of a provisional government after a token ‘election’ for the benefit of the international community (Taylor held his in 1997). The question is whether you want to commit yourself to fixing West Africa.

I know how most Americans would answer that. But the Bush administration thinks more about the Dark Continent than its predecessor did. Disease in Africa, for example, has been identified as a potential national security threat. An American diplomat recently described to me the war on terror as a Saudi civil war that the Saudis had successfully exported to the rest of the world. What would it take to export West Africa’s troubles to the world? For some no-account nickel’n’dime operator, Charles Taylor has done a grand job of destabilising a region. Where’s next? Benin? Togo? If you don’t think West Africa can be contained, it’ll have to be cured, and that’s a 30-year project. Otherwise, George F. Kennan’s argument against intervention in Somalia holds for the west of the continent, too: ‘This dreadful situation cannot possibly be put to rights other than by the establishment of a governing power for the entire territory, and a very ruthless, determined one at that. It would not be a democratic one, because the very prerequisites for a democratic political system do not exist among the people in question.’

On the other hand, if anyone in the Bush administration were to start talking about Liberia in those terms, you can pretty much guarantee that Howard Dean, Bishop Griswold and all the other enthusiastic interventionists would be marching up and down chanting, ‘It’s all about diamonds!’

Stay tuned. Or, as they say in Monrovia, keep your ears peeled.


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