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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Liberia: Waiting for Washington

Africa Policy E-Journal
July 3, 2003 (030703)

Liberia: Waiting for Washington
(Reposted from sources cited below)

With President Bush's trip to Africa only days away, the Pentagon has been asked to prepare contingency plans for participation of U.S. troops in multilateral peacekeeping operations in Liberia, as demanded by Liberians, West African countries, and the United Nations. But the president has apparently not yet made his decision. Even if some troops are sent, serious questions remain on the details of participation, and particularly on the terms of U.S. engagement, given the Pentagon's preference for non-engagement or for total unilateral control. The longer the decision is delayed, the more prominence it will have as President Bush visits five African countries next week, two of them in West Africa.

This posting contains excerpts from two recent news stories from on the debate, and from an extensive 1995 report by's Reed Kramer detailing previous failures of U.S. Liberia policy, including when the President's father was faced with crisis in Liberia in 1990. The full paper, too long to include here, is available on the site at the link indicated below.

Meanwhile news reports indicate that the U.S. has suspended military aid to about 35 countries, including, in Africa, Benin, Central African Republic, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Niger, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia. The countries are signatories to the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), and failed to satisfy U.S. demands to sign "bilateral immunity agreements" confirming that U.S. nationals can commit war crimes or other serious human rights offenses without fear of accountability to that international body. For a commentary on the ICC and Africa, see the issue of Pambazuka News for July 3, 2003 at:

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Bush 'Still Deciding' on Whether to Send Troops to Liberia

July 3, 2003

By Charles Cobb Jr.
Washington, DC

U.S. President George W. Bush says he wants to get enough information before he makes a decision on whether to send troops to Liberia: "I'm in the process of gathering the information necessary to make a rational decision as to how to enforce the ceasefire -- keep the ceasefire in place," he told Thursday morning.

The administration has been pressed by regional African leaders and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to send up to 2,000 troops to Liberia. Representatives of the West African regional organization, Ecowas, met with "our military thinkers Wednesday to discuss military options," said Bush, but a report of that meeting has not yet reached the White House. "Once the strategy is in place I will let people know," Bush promised.

No details on the number or type of troops that could be deployed as part of an intervention force have been released but the Associated Press Thursday quoted defence officials as saying that U.S. military command in Europe has been ordered to begin planning for possible American intervention in Liberia. A 'Warning Order' was sent Wednesday night to Europe Commander Gen. James Jones asking him to give the Pentagon his estimate of how the situation in Liberia might be handled. ...

Bush Pressed To Commit 'Boots On The Ground' in Liberia

July 1, 2003

By Reed Kramer and Charles Cobb Jr.

Washington, DC

A decade after 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed by an angry mob in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, the Bush administration is facing mounting pressure to put American 'boots on the ground' in Africa once again. Calls for an active U.S. intervention in Liberia are coming from the United Nations and various member governments, including Britain and France and leading African officials.

Senior administration officials met at the White House Saturday to discuss Liberia during a Cabinet-level 'principals' meeting of the National Security Council. Another session is scheduled for Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a television appearance Monday. "There's a sense of urgency with respect to the situation, and I don't want to pre-judge when the president might decide or what he might decide, but we are seized with the matter," Powell told interviewer Jim Lehrer on public television's NewsHour program. "We understand that this is a problem that has to be dealt with in the very near future."

Last week, President George W. Bush called on the Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, to leave office "so that his country can be spared further bloodshed." Addressing a U.S.-Africa Business Summit sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa, Bush said: "We are determined to help the people of Liberia find peace."

Because Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in 1847 and was a staunch U.S. ally during the Cold War, particularly in the 1980s, many people in Africa and other parts of the globe see the country as an American responsibility. However, administration policy to date has sent mixed signals to the parties involved in the conflict. In mid-June, with fighting in Monrovia escalating, the Bush administration positioned a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, off the western shore of Africa to aid in the potential evacuation of American citizens. The ship, equipped with helicopters and a sizeable medical team, arrived just as negotiations over Liberia's future reached a critical point.

According to mediators taking part in the talks in Ghana, the presence of the American ship was a critical factor in persuading the warring parties, particularly Taylor's beleaguered government, to agree to end the fighting. But after only three days - before the ink on the accord was dry, the ship was ordered back to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, where it arrived Monday following six weeks involvement in the war on Iraq and a short stint providing security for President Bush's visits to Egypt and Jordan last month.

"Once Taylor saw that ship steam away, he reverted to his old ways - shifting and delaying and refusing to accept what he has already agreed to do," said one senior U.S. official involved in the issue. Instead of stepping aside for an interim administration, as the agreement envisioned, Taylor insisted he would serve out his term, which ends in January.

Despite this setback, the mediators last week managed to get a ceasefire in place, after first pressuring the rebels to end their assault on Monrovia and then arm-twisting Taylor to join in the truce. The accord was the work of Ghana's President John Kufuor, current chair of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), and General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former Nigerian head-of-state, who is the chief Ecowas negotiator.

On Saturday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called on the Security Council to augment the Ecowas effort with significant support. "International action is urgently needed to reverse Liberia's drift towards total disintegration," he said. ...

During a previous war-enduced crisis in 1990, when the current U.S. president's father was in office, Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen toured West Africa to meet with key actors in the unfolding crisis, only to be recalled to Washington where the focus was on preparation for war with Iraq. "You can only concentrate on so many things at once," Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to President Bush said in a 1993 interview. The decision proved costly in both human lives and humanitarian assistance, Cohen said in an interview last week. The instability spread through the region, engulfing Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, and impacting the regional giant Nigeria.

The first Bush administration "looked the other way" while Liberia descended into chaos, Crocker said. This time around, Crocker said "it wouldn't surprise me" if President Bush "confronts the skeptics in the Pentagon -- and we all know that is where they are -- and says this is the time to act." ,,,

Asked about Liberia on Monday at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: "We've spent time over the weekend -- a good deal of time over the weekend -- visiting among ourselves about that and thinking through different aspects of it," he said. The president has not yet "made a call," he said, "nor has the State Department requested an evacuation out of Monrovia." "We ought to be engaged," said Susan E. Rice, who was assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1997 until 2001. "Ecowas is saying they will send 3,000 troops as part of a multinational force if the United States will send 2,000 troops and takes the lead. I think that is a bargain we ought to accept," she told the Brookings forum. "For Liberia, the United States is the international 911. There is no other." ...

Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End

Africa News Service (Durham)

Excerpts only: see full text at:

July 1, 1995

By Reed Kramer

Half a decade ago, with the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union entering its final days, a small-scale conflict in West Africa quietly put post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy to an early test.

Liberia's civil war, which began with a cross-border raid by a tiny rebel band in late 1989, has claimed the lives of one out of every 17 people in the country, uprooted most of the rest, and destroyed a once-viable economic infrastructure.

The strife also has spread to Liberia's neighbors, contributing to a slowing of the democratization that was progressing steadily through West Africa at the beginning of the decade and destabilizing a region that already was one of the world's most marginal. U.S. taxpayers have footed a sizable bill -- over $400 million to date -- for emergency aid that arguably never would have been needed had their government used its considerable clout to help end the killing.

As fighting escalated in early 1990, the Bush administration faced a serious conundrum. Western European and most of Africa looked to the United States to take the lead in seeking a peaceful resolution of the Liberian crisis, since the country's history bears an unmistakable "made in America" stamp. But senior administration officials, determined to limit U.S. involvement in what was viewed as a "brush fire," rejected the notion of inherent American interest or responsibility.

"It was difficult to see how we could intervene without taking over and pacifying the country with a more-or-less-permanent involvement of U.S. forces," Brent Scowcroft, President George Bush's national security advisor, said in a 1993 interview with the author after leaving office. In addition, Scowcroft continued, U.S. attention was "dedicated towards other areas most involved in ending the Cold War." There was the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990, the build up the war in the Gulf. "You can only concentrate on so many things at once," Scowcroft said.

But a range of senior U.S. officials did focus considerable attention on Africa's oldest republic. During a crucial period of increasing carnage in mid-1990, Liberia was a regular item on the agenda of the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council, where most major foreign policy problems were handled. Later in the year as the crisis deepened, the Deputies dealt daily with both Liberia and Kuwait, according to participants in the sessions.

"We missed an opportunity in Liberia," Herman J. Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush administration, said in an 'exit interview' (CSIS Africa Notes, Number 147, April 1993). "We did not intervene either militarily or diplomatically."

The following account of the U.S. decision-making process during Liberia's disintegration is drawn from some 30 interviews with policymakers at all levels in Washington and abroad, and from a review of historical materials and public records, Some of the interviews were on the record, but most were with officials who agreed to talk only if their names and positions were not cited. ...

Ready-Made Cold Warrior

It became the job of William Tubman, a reform-minded career politician who was electe4d president in 1943 and inaugurated the following year, to lead the country into an era when the global spotlight turned towards Africa. ...

The core of his platform was the "Open Door" policy, designed to promote the development of the country's largely undeveloped interior based on joint ventures between the government and foreign investors. ...

As it had done in the two World Wars, Liberia steered a decidedly pro-American course as the Cold War engulfed the globe. The United States set up a permanent mission to train the Liberian military and began bringing Liberian officers to American institutions for further training. In 1959, Liberia concluded a mutual defense pact with the United States. ...

Although Liberia was no longer the focus of U.S. interest in Africa -- new nations like Ghana and Nigeria and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa claimed the bulk of official and media attention -- U.S. aid grew steadily. From 1946 to 1961, Liberia received $41 million in assistance, the fourth largest amount in sub-Saharan Africa (after Ethiopia, Zaire, and Sudan). Between 1962 and 1980, economic and military aid totaled $278 million. In per capita terms, Liberia hosted the largest Peace Corps contingent and received the greatest level of aid of any country on the entire African country. ...

The Soldiers Take Control

Americo-Liberian political hegemony ended abruptly on April 12, 1980 when 17 young army officers of indigenous descent staged a bloody coup. Tolbert was slain in the Executive Mansion, along with more than a score of others, mostly security personnel. Another 13 officials died in a nationally televised execution 10 days later on a Monrovia beach. Coming amid rising public pressure for political and economic reform and a crackdown on dissent by the Tolbert regime, the takeover was welcomed by many inside and outside Liberia as a significant shift favoring the 95 percent of the population excluded from power by
Americo-Liberians. ,,,

Caught off guard by the turn of events, the Carter administration reacted cautiously. But after a policy review, an aid package was approved "to exercise influence on the course of events," ...

After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, support for Liberia was increased. Aid levels rose from about $20 million in 1979 to $75 million and then $95 million, for a total of $402 million between 1981 and 1985, more than the country received during the entire previous century. Ties with the Liberian army were strengthened; the military component of the aid package for this period was about $15 million, which was used for a greatly enlarged training program, barracks construction and equipment.

In 1982, Doe was invited to Washington for an Oval Office meeting with President Reagan. Although the session began on a miscue, with Reagan introducing his visitor as "Chairman Moe" during a photo taking in the Rose Garden, Doe received what he wanted -- a promise of continued American backing.

... As part of the expanding relationship, Doe agreed to a modification of the mutual defense pact granting staging rights on 24-hour notice at Liberia's sea and airports for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force, which was trained to respond to security threats around the world. A year after the meeting with Reagan, Doe followed the precedent set by Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, thus breaking away from the isolationist stand adopted by most African countries in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

A Cog in the Anti-Qaddafi Machine

Exerting a pivotal impact on Liberia policy was the closely held fact that Doe and his small country had been drawn into an effort to oust Libya's Muammar Qaddafi from power. Within weeks after Reagan's inauguration, the CIA, under the direction of Reagan's trusted adviser William J. Casey, began encouraging and supporting anti-Qaddafi activity by Libyan opposition groups and friendly foreign governments. ...

By the time Doe arrived at the White House in August of 1982, the CIA task force had pinpointed Liberia as a key operational area -- an easily accessible base for the CIA's heightened clandestine campaign against Libya throughout the area. According to government officials involved in Liberia at the time, one of the first steps taken was to make high-tech improvements in at least one of the communication facilities in Monrovia

Liberia's usefulness as a regional linchpin already had been tested during a covert operation in support of Chadian leader Hissene Habre, who had successfully ousted his Libyan-backed rival, Goukouni Oueddei in June. ...

According to Woodward, Casey selected Doe as one of 12 heads of state from around the world to receive support from a special security assistance program. The operations were designed to provide both extraordinary protection for the leaders and otherwise unobtainable information and access for the CIA. Unknown to almost everyone else involved in making decisions about Liberia for the administration, this gave the CIA and the White House a huge stake in keeping the Liberian regime in place.

That objective proved increasingly challenging. Although a 25-person constitutional commission headed by Amos Sawyer, then dean of the University of Liberia, presented its report in early 1983, the ruling PRC delayed the holding of a promised referendum, creating growing unease in the country. ...

In early 1984, the government shut down the leading daily, The Observer, edited by Kenneth Best, one of Africa's best known journalists. The PRC also used a ban on political activity, enacted in the aftermath of the coup, to crackdown on critics. ...

When [election] balloting took place, Doe declared himself the winner by 50.9 percent of the vote, despite ample evidence that he had been defeated. Nevertheless, the Reagan administration accepted the results. ...

Liberians were "baffled" by Washington's reaction and the "reluctance to concede the grimness of Doe's human rights record," Enoanyi says. The situation grew increasingly bad, particularly after a failed coup attempt by Doe's exiled former second-in-command Thomas Quiwonkpa, which was followed by stepped-up attacks on the opposition.

After the election results were announced, the [U.S.] House and Senate each passed nonbinding resolutions calling for an end to U.S. assistance, but the administration announced aid would continue. ...

Meanwhile, the CIA activity in Liberia increased markedly. ... The country proved important for another covert action that year -- the airlift to Unita mounted after the 1985 repeal of the Clark Amendment, which had barred covert U.S. security assistance to any of the factions in Angola. Almost as soon as the votes were counted, the Agency began shipping materiel, with Roberts Field again playing a key support role as a transit point.

In early 1987, Secretary of State George Shultz landed at Roberts Field at the end of a six-nation African tour and, to the consternation of many, applauded "continued efforts towards political reconciliation" during a luncheon with Doe. ,,, On December 24, 1989 two dozen armed insurgents quietly crossed into Liberia from the Ivory Coast, ushering in a new and tragic phase of the Liberian saga.

U.S. Policy in the 1990s

The connections spanning two centuries and the particularly close ties of the 1980s led Liberians and others to expect that the United States would help when trouble came.

The 1989 insurgents were led by Charles Taylor, 40, a former procurement clerk in Doe's government who fled to the United States after being charged with embezzling a million dollars, was detained in Massachusetts for extradition and escaped from jail while awaiting a hearing. The rebels expected to quickly garner support and cover the 200 miles to Monrovia in a matter of weeks. ...

The unrest caused mild alarm In Washington. An interagency working group , chaired by Assistant Secretary Cohen, was convened to review the situation and reexamine options. This was followed by extensive discussions in the Deputies Committee. "There were different views on how active we should be," said one participant, "but ultimately, the prevailing view was that this was something for the Liberians to work out themselves."

The policy that evolved throughout 1990 can be viewed through the prism of three guiding principles.

1. Reluctance to Break with Liberia's Rulers.

As soon as the first reports arrived from Nimba, there were a few calls within the administration for a course correction that would distance the United States from Doe's unpopular rule. ...

As the deliberations moved up the policy chain, new global considerations took precedence. Liberia's proven utility as a military staging base and intelligence monitoring site weighed in Doe's favor. Moreover, policymakers were instinctually leery of Taylor, since they had intelligence indicating he had received modest backing from Libya, including training for some of his men.

2. Disregard for the Potential Impact of Low-Level Engagement.

U.S. prestige carried more sway in Liberia than most senior policymakers realized in their 1990 evaluations. The inclination was to downplay the significance of historical ties rather than employing them as tools for successful diplomacy. ...

3. Preference for Arms-Length Diplomacy.

Forceful diplomatic engagement of the kind that has long been routinely employed by superpowers was never attempted in Liberia. Instead, U.S. involvement was limited largely to the protection of American lives and the provision of emergency aid. And there was not much public pressure to do anything more. ,,,

West African governments, however, expected and wanted a more active American role. "We could not understand how the U.S. government with its long-standing relationship with Liberia could remain so aloof," said Ambassador Joseph Iroha, a career Nigerian diplomat who represented Ecowas in Monrovia for several years during the war. West African states sent in troops to stop the fratricidal killing," he said, because "we couldn't allow this sort of thing to continue."

What Have We Learned from Liberia?

Unfortunately, by the time Ecowas was able to organize an intervention force in late 1990, the country's dismemberment was far advanced and domestic division had been cemented with widespread bloody conflict. In addition, the peace force brought problems of its own. ...

Critics of U.S. policy argue that even after the administration decision to limit direct American involvement, Washington could have done much more, both materially and diplomatically, to bolster the West African effort and make it more successful.

No one can judge with hindsight whether the loss of an estimated 150,000 lives and the regional devastation spawned by the Liberian crisis could have been prevented without extended U.S. military engagement ...

What is certain is that failure to stop the fighting during 1990, before the entire country was demolished, erected barriers to a solution that still have not been overcome. The result was to condemn Liberia and much of the region to continuing suffering and to divert scarce international assistance from economic development to sustaining refugees. ...

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Date distributed (ymd): 030703
Region: West Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+ +US policy focus+

The Africa Action E-Journal is a free information service provided by Africa Action, including both original commentary and reposted documents. Africa Action provides this information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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