The Liberian Opportunity
Should we or shouldn't we?


“Satan step down! Baboon step down! We support George Bush!”
— Liberian protesters calling for the overthrow of Charles Taylor

Liberia is a failed West African state in the grip of political violence, which is not usually the kind of place the news media pay much attention to. Yet, with President Bush at the start of a weeklong trip to Africa, the story has traction. The president called for the ouster of Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, who, with the rebels at the gates, has graciously consented to go into exile in Nigeria and thereby avoid the spilling of more blood, especially his own. Meanwhile the U.N., numerous states in the region, and the Liberian people, are calling for U.S. military intervention. The president has said he would consider it, and an assessment team has landed to check out the situation. Given U.S. military commitments elsewhere in the world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, deploying more troops in another part of the world might seem to be stretching our resources. Furthermore, if the purpose is purely humanitarian, one could argue that this is a misplaced priority. However, the most important reason to consider intervening in Liberia is not humanitarian, but strategic.

Liberia is in the center of what Naval War College Professor Thomas Barnett calls the “Non-Integrating Gap,” the area of the world stretching from the southwest Pacific to parts of Latin America that has been most resistant to the effects of globalization. This Gap is the source of most of the emerging threats to United States, and is an important framing concept for future strategic planning. Liberia is typical of states in the Gap. It was the first of several West African states to fall victim to sectarian violence in the post-Cold War period. Civil war broke out between Taylor and former leader Samuel K. Doe in 1989, and Taylor won power by election in 1997 after regional intervention. Taylor then thanked his neighbors by destabilizing Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire. His human-rights record was abysmal. His relations with Washington were adversarial. He rivaled Zimbabwe’s execrable Robert Mugabe for the title “Africa’s Saddam.”

Liberia has direct and indirect links to the war on terrorism. Taylor was an active participant in the illegal diamond trade in the region that has contributed not only to violence in that part of the world (over control of the mines, particularly in Sierra Leone) but also helped finance the international terrorist networks, including, if not especially, al Qaeda. Taylor, like many of the current and former West African insurgents, was a protégé of Muammar Khadafi, and trained in his terrorist camps before launching his bid for power. So too did many operatives later tied to al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups. Not surprisingly, Libya was mentioned as a possible refuge for the exiled Taylor, and Khadafi has denounced the idea of an American deployment to Liberia. (Ironically, one of the first to call for U.S. intervention was Taylor himself, when he realized that he was losing his grip on the country and figured a “stability operation” would work in his favor.) The terror networks have a strong presence throughout the region, the monitoring of which is left mostly up to France. That is hardly an acceptable part of our risk calculus.

The special relationship with the United States — the Liberian street is claiming that the U.S. is their big brother and shirking its responsibilities by not intervening — is not necessarily a reason for intervening, but it is a facilitating factor. The fact that the Liberian people want us to step in is a welcome change from the usual forced-entry scenario. The main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) has pledged to lay down its arms if Taylor leaves, preferably to answer his pending U.N. war-crimes indictment. There is sufficient regional manpower for a peacekeeping force — eleven countries have pledged to send several thousand peacekeeping forces under the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This is another reason that Liberians would like to see a U.S. presence, given Nigeria’s misuse of the ECOWAS peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, which intervened in Liberia over a decade ago. They see the U.S. as an honest broker. ECOWAS, for its part, also desires the United States to take a leading role. And while it is true that the United States cannot intervene in every humanitarian emergency, it does not logically follow that the United States should not render assistance where it can and where other interests are involved. Bringing stability and assisting in nation building in Liberia may not by themselves be sufficient grounds for intervention, but neither are they arguments against it.

A stable, democratic, U.S.-leaning Liberia could serve as an important forward base to defend U.S. interests and promote regional stability. Liberia would be the Western counterpart of the expanding U.S. base in Djibouti, established to block terrorist escape routes from the Middle East into East Africa. Liberia is also located along the shipping lanes for energy resources coming from Nigeria (already a major oil supplier to the U.S.), and potential untapped future energy supplies from Sao Tome and Principe. A permanent presence in a friendly West African country would thus serve two important long-term strategic interests: facilitating the shift of U.S. imported oil away from the Middle East and towards more defendable sources closer to home; and redeploying troops from the Cold War frontiers of Central Europe and Northeast Asia to areas where they can be more rapidly brought to bear on future security threats.

Military intervention would have to be complemented with a political-reform effort, and probably some form of development aid. The nation-building effort would not be as expensive as that in Iraq, but would have to be undertaken as a long-term project. Of course there are risks involved in any such experiment — success is never guaranteed. But the future security environment will look radically different from that to which we have been accustomed, and we should start to get used to it. Liberia should be viewed not as a charity case but an opportunity.