During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush emphasized that a vital national interest ought to be at stake before the United States launches a military intervention. Unfortunately, the president is about to violate his own standard by sending American troops to Liberia at the head of an international peacekeeping force.
There is not even a peripheral, much less a vital, U.S. interest at stake in Liberia. It might be possible to find a country that is less relevant than Liberia to America’s security and well-being, but it would take a major effort.
Writer Irving Kristol had it right more than a decade ago during a previous civil war in Liberia when he observed that the only issue at stake seemed to be a mundane fight between then-dictator Samuel K. Doe and would-be dictator Charles Taylor. Today, the mundane struggle is between Taylor and rebels who would likely replace his odious regime with an equally odious one. America does not have a dog in that fight.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and other lobbyists for a U.S.-led peacekeeping mission argue that intervention is justified because considerable suffering is taking place in the Liberian civil war. That is undoubtedly tragic for the people of Liberia. But the existence of suffering in another country is not sufficient reason for the United States to commit its military personnel.
There is suffering going on in numerous places around the world. Indeed, the scale of human misery is far greater in such places as the Congo, Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, and Sudan than it is in Liberia. From a moral standpoint, how can the Bush administration justify intervening in Liberia while declining to use force in those other cases? Yet if the United States intends to intervene everywhere bad things happen, our military will be busy in perpetuity. Humanitarian intervention is, therefore, an impractical, bankrupt policy.
Even some advocates of intervention in Liberia seem to shy away from the logical implications of their policies. Typically, their arguments include a disclaimer that the United States cannot intervene everywhere, or that America cannot be the world’s policeman. But then they blithely go on to suggest making Liberia an exception.
The problem with that approach is that the list of potential exceptions is as numerous as the advocates of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In the early 1990s, proponents made Somalia an exception. A few years later it was Haiti, then Bosnia, and then Kosovo. Now, advocates of intervention in Liberia compete with those who believe America should take action to end the suffering in the Congo or Myanmar.
Given all the potential “exceptions” to the rule that the United States should not try to be the world’s policeman, America would end up in that role by default. Indeed, if the Bush administration follows the advice of the lobbyists for humanitarian intervention, the United States will not only be the world’s policeman, it will be the world’s armed social worker.
Some supporters of intervention in Liberia contend that the country is a special case because it was founded by freed American slaves in the 1800s. Of all the justifications for the use of military force, that one is the silliest. The circumstances of the founding of a country more than 150 years ago has no relevance whatsoever to the question of whether the United States ought to take action in the 21st century. When interventionists resort to that kind of argument, they are grasping at straws.
It is unsound strategically to send our military personnel in harm’s way when there is no vital security interest at stake. Even worse, it is immoral to risk their lives in such ventures. Being a superpower means that the United States has the luxury to say “no” as well as “yes” to suggestions that it engage in military interventions. Liberia is a case where U.S. leaders should have said “no” early and often.
— Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs including Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.