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Liberia: U.S. Policy (part 1)
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Liberia: U.S. Policy (part 1)
Date Distributed (ymd): 950916
A peace accord signed in late August has brought new hope
for stability and the beginning of reconstruction in Liberia
after more than five years of war. But the prospects for
recovery will depend on international support as well as
Liberian commitment to peace. For that to happen, lessons
need to be drawn from the policy record of the crisis years.
The following is excerpted from a longer article entitled
"Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End," by Reed Kramer,
managing editor of Africa News Service, who has covered
Africa and U.S.-Africa policy for more than two decades. It
appeared as the July 1995 issue of CSIS Africa Notes, and is
available for $4.00 per copy from the African Studies
Program of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, 1800 K Street, Washington, D.C. 20006 USA. Tel:
(202) 775-3219. The article also can be viewed (after
October 1) on the new Africa News Service Web site, AFRICA
NEWS ONLINE (http://www.afnews.org/ans).
Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End
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 Europe 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
"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 to 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 fate of a West African country, about the size of
Tennessee with a pre-war population of 2.6 million, was of
scant interest to most Americans. But Liberia was the first
of a series of once-stable countries whose disintegration
has seriously strained the world's peacekeeping capacity and
tested international commitment to humanitarian relief. By
an accident of timing, crisis management in the new age had
its trial run in Africa.
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.
Born in the U.S.A.
[The full article includes historical background on the long
relationship between the U.S. and Liberia, beginning with
the first settlers of returned African Americans in the
early 19th century and continuing through U.S. investment
and military involvement in the decades following World War
II under Presidents William Tubman and William Tolbert.]
Although Liberia was no longer the focus of U.S. interest in
Africa [after 1960] -- 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.
"Liberians went wild in celebration of what seemed like our
history's finest moment," according to one eyewitness,
Cameroon-born journalist Bill Frank Enoanyi, who lived in
Liberia for many years and wrote an account of the civil
war, Behold Uncle Sam's Step-Child (Sacramento: SanMar
Publications, 1991). Samuel Doe, who turned 28 shortly after
seizing power, became head of state and chairman of the
ruling People's Redemption Council (PRC). The young soldiers
reached out to the grass-roots opposition groups who had
campaigned against Tolbert and named reform-mined
politicians to senior government posts.
They faced a massive task, however. "The past rulers, bent
on improving their own personal positions at the expense of
the masses of the people, destroyed the economy," Minister
of Planning Togba-Nah Tipoteh, one of the newly named
civilians, said when interviewed in his office several weeks
after the takeover. According to Amos Sawyer, the Liberian
political scientist who served as interim president of the
country from 1990-1994, the new rulers vacillated between "a
populist program of development" and "retaliatory indigenous
hegemony.... The only consistency about military rule in
Liberia was the repression rained upon the people and the
looting of the society."
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," Assistant Secretary of State
Richard Moose told Congress in August 1980. ...
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 ...
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.
The policy was based on a belief that Doe and his colleagues
could be coaxed back to the barracks and Liberia set on the
road to democracy. Doe, who had been trained by U.S. Green
Berets, helped matters by embracing the new administration's
'hot-button' concerns. Before coming to Washington, he had
closed the Libyan mission in Monrovia, as Reagan had done in
Washington. Doe also ordered reductions in the size of the
Soviet embassy staff. His second-in-command, Thomas Weh
Syen, who was said to favor a pro-Libyan tilt, had been
tried and summarily executed along with four other Council
members for plotting Doe's assassination. And politicians
also considered to be "radicals," including Tipoteh, had
been removed from the Cabinet.
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 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.
Reagan officials were outspokenly critical of Qaddafi.
However, the existence of a large-scale covert operation
coordinated by a special CIA task force on Libya under
Casey's personal direction came to light only after the 1986
bombing raid on Tripoli, when details were published in
February 1987 by Bob Woodward and Don Oberdorfer in a
front-page Washington Post article and by Seymour Hersh in
the New York Times Magazine. ...
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. In Veil: The
Secret Wars of the CIA 1981 - 1987 (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1987), the Washington Post's Woodward says Casey
launched the Chad operation after an National Intelligence
Estimate he read his third day in office convinced him that
Chad could be Qaddafi's Achilles' heel.
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. ... 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.
[Then the regime], Sawyer charges in his book, "altered the
draft to suit the specific political ambitions of Doe." ...
After tolerating a relatively free press immediately
following the coup, the regime began to react more
defensively, banning some editions of newspapers and jailing
reporters. 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. ...
In preparation for presidential elections, Doe set up an
Interim Assembly (with himself as president), changed the
election timetable and his date of birth to meet the age
eligibility requirement in the constitution, created his own
political party, and declared his candidacy for office. In
the run-up to the vote, the regime barred two of the largest
parties from competing, including one headed by Sawyer. ...
When the 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. "This performance
established a beginning, however imperfect, " Assistant
Secretary of State Chester Crocker told Congress two months
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.
The deterioration in the situation provoked a congressional
reaction. Prior to the election, Republican members of the
House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote Doe protesting the
trial of a leading opposition candidate, Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf, a former minister of finance and World Bank
official. After the election results were announced, the
House and Senate each passed nonbinding resolutions calling
for an end to U.S. assistance, but the administration
announced aid would continue.
During Liberia's election spectacle, Washington again became
preoccupied by Libya, sparked by the hijacking of a Trans
World Airline flight from Athens to Rome. ...
Meanwhile, the CIA activity in Liberia increased markedly.
"We were prepared to use every lever against Tripoli, and
Monrovia had an important part," said one intelligence
official with on-the-ground experience in West Africa. ...
The country [also] 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. The secretary, who also met opposition leaders,
stressed that the government "must make changes in its
economic policies." ...
A General Accounting Office audit released shortly after
[Schultz's] return revealed massive mismanagement of U.S.
aid funds, which, on top of an existing $800,000 arrearage,
forced the administration to change course. After lengthy
negotiations, Liberia agreed in 1988 to hand over
supervision of government spending for two years to a team
of 17 experts from the U.S. Agency for International
Development (AID). Before the year ended, Doe had scuttled
the arrangement and the experts went home.
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.
[continued in separate file on U.S. Policy in the 1990s]
These excerpts are distributed, with permission of the
author, by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC).
APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in
the United States around African issues and the U.S. role
in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible
policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a
wide range of groups and individuals. APIC is
affiliated with the Washington Office on Africa (WOA),
a not-for-profit church, trade union and civil rights
group supported organization that works with Congress
on Africa-related legislation.