Into Africa

How Iraq begat Liberia


Liberia poses no threat to American security. It possesses no weapons of mass destruction, and it would be foolish to use them against us if it did. It is not allied with Osama bin Laden, it has never attacked the United States, and most Pentagon officials are reportedly opposed to sending soldiers there. If they are deployed, our troops are hardly equipped to transform it into a peaceful constitutional republic.

So clearly, there's plenty of precedent for invading it.

With the national-security arguments for the Iraq war in tatters, the only remaining justifications for that war are the nastiness of the Ba'athist regime and the alleged benefits of American nation-building. And those, adjusted just slightly for local conditions, are the arguments we hear for sending U.S. troops to Liberia. It's easy to poke fun at Howard Dean for morphing so quickly into George W. Bush when the talk turned from intervention in the Middle East to intervention in West Africa. Left unexamined is how exactly George W. Bush morphed into Howard Dean.

The answer lies in Iraq, and in the ease with which anything can be linked, Kevin Bacon-style, to the war on terror. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice has already claimed that, simply because it is a "failed state"—under exiting dictator Charles Taylor, the chief role of the Liberian government has been to kill the members of other would-be Liberian governments, plus anyone who happens to be in the way—Liberia endangers American security. We've "recognized since 9/11," she said last Thursday, "that one wants to be careful about permitting…failed states to create conditions in which there's so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism." We haven't spotted any actual terrorists there, of course; or, at least, none whose beef is with America. But there's the possibility of terror emerging, and so the precautionary principle gets invoked.

It's not clear what exactly the troops would be doing there. The scenario currently kicked around involves sending in a couple thousand grunts as part of a multilateral force, quickly "stabilizing" things, and then leaving. It's not obvious how this "stabilizing" would take place, nor how we should know when the job is done. (Taylor's most likely successor thinks it will take at least two years.) Nor is it clear why we should expect this occupation to involve anything other than a bunch of peacekeepers getting shot at. The U.S. created Liberia and has a long, unpleasant history of sending both soldiers and aid to its shores; whatever else might be said of that involvement, it hasn't stabilized the country yet.

We've entered a strange period in American history, a time when cops are asked to be soldiers and soldiers are asked to be cops. Support it or oppose it, it's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't want the American occupation of Iraq to end as soon as possible; the argument, for most of us, is over just how soon that is. It's hard to believe someone would want to add yet another occupation to our overburdened military's dance sheet.