One of the problems for U.S. foreign policy is that its practitioners tend to be over-influenced by the last crisis and its outcome. Like generals fighting the last war, U.S. diplomats make mistakes by trying desperately to avoid the mistakes they made last time. Thus, the fiasco in Somalia — where the U.S. intervened from humanitarian motives, allowed “mission creep” to turn this limited exercise into nation-building, and then retreated in disorder when U.S. troops were killed in a major skirmish — led directly to President Clinton’s refusal to intervene to halt the genocide in Rwanda a few years later.
Hundreds of thousands died in that genocide. Collateral damage included the West’s integrity when the leading Western nations refused to admit that Rwanda was genocide because that would have legally obliged them to intervene under a U.N. Convention they had signed without really thinking through its implications. And Rwanda replaced Somalia as the last awful warning.
Rwanda is now persuading many people in Washington that the U.S. must now intervene in Liberia to establish civil order and to save the people there from criminal gangs, some called government troops, and others “rebels,” who murder and mutilate at random in a war without frontiers to corner the lucrative West African diamond trade.
Saving Liberia is an indubitably “good cause.” And if the long-running Liberian civil war had intruded on our consciousness a few months ago, the relatively easy success of the Iraq military campaign might have removed all objections to U.S. intervention. But because the U.S. now seems to be enmeshed in an indefinite struggle against Baathist guerrillas, the Bush administration is somewhat nervous about getting involved in yet another conflict.
Most of the pressure for Liberian intervention comes from human-rights groups, Democrats, and the liberal Left in general who like U. S. military action to be purely humanitarian and untainted as far as possible by grubby national self-interest. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that if someone supported the war in Iraq, they probably don’t want to intervene in Liberia — and if they didn’t, they do.
What we need is to get away from concentrating on the last crisis-and to lay down a few commonsense principles for dealing with Liberia and future crises like it. And having enunciated the principles, let us apply to them this first case.
1. In foreign policy, prudence governs all and no principle is absolutely sacred.
2. Humanitarianism is not enough. If the crisis has no effect on American interests, then we should be extremely reluctant to put American GIs in harm’s way in order to resolve it. We might intervene diplomatically, or give various forms of aid either through U.S. agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private charities, or assist in post-crisis peacekeeping. Only in the most exceptional circumstances (see point #1), however, should the U.S. take the military lead in a humanitarian intervention. And, of course, we should never sign grand international declarations that either commit us to such interventions irrespective of our government’s judgment — or oblige us to become hypocrites, denying the crime because we don’t want to be the policeman. Liberia is a real humanitarian crisis. We can afford to say so-and leave it at that if we wish.
3. National interest is needed to justify intervention — but national interest is not always self-evident. Before September 11, few Americans would have thought that removing Taliban rule from Afghanistan was an important U.S. interest. It was. Arguably, a stable Liberia and its crisis-ridden neighbors, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, are a significant long-term U.S. interest on two grounds. To start with, allowing these countries to crumble into “failed states” would create the same breeding ground for terrorism that existed in Afghanistan in 2001. Second, instability in West Africa might threaten a region that official estimates suggest will supply 20 percent of oil imports in the near future. Remember that the largest West African state, Nigeria, is both a major oil producer and the site of growing conflict between Christians and radical Muslims. Avoiding the “Lebanonization” of West Africa would justify at least come commitment of U.S. forces.
4. But be realistic, not optimistic, about the costs of intervention. As the continuing turmoil in Iraq shows, it is better to intervene with excessive force than with inadequate manpower. Fortunately, if the experience of the British in Sierra Leone is any guide, establishing order in Liberia could probably be done with a force of a few thousand good troops.
5. Even so, where possible, have allies to share the burdens of intervention. Such allies, however, must (a) have good long-term interests of their own to persuade them to stay the course, and (a) a willingness to bring real resources to the table. Nations with an interest in Liberian stability are Britain (which is maintaining the peace in Sierra Leone), France (ditto in the Ivory Coast), and Liberia’s other West African neighbors. The most that can be expected from other West African countries is a modest commitment of troops who will have to be retrained for their new roles. But Britain and France are both significant military powers with experience in putting out “brushfire wars,” a sense of post-colonial obligation, and local involvement.
6. As well a national interest to justify intervention, however, you also need a clear aim — which does not necessarily include an exit strategy. Somalia was a pointless intervention. The U.S. arrived, restored some kind of order, and then left, allowing chaos to resume. Liberia and West Africa need a long-term program to restore stability and government — not just a quick fix to a civil war that could be easily resumed.
These principles would seem to require something more ambitious than a brief U.S.-led intervention in Liberia — something on the lines of an Anglo-French-U.S. condominium that, with the collaboration of West African states, would not only restore order in failing states there but also provide them with 30 years of good government in which civil society, an open free-market economy, and a tradition of democratic political restraint might develop and take root. In other words — liberal imperialism.
If Washington thinks it cannot achieve that, it had better not intervene in the first place.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review. A version of this piece ran in the Chicago Sun-Times; it is reprinted with permission.