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Liberia: U.S. Policy (part 2)
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Liberia: U.S. Policy (part 2)
Date Distributed (ymd): 950916
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
[part 1, primarily on the Reagan years, appears in a
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. Doe's army responded by
rushing reinforcements to Nimba County, where the rebel
force was advancing, but the soldiers, who were mostly Krahn
(Doe's ethnic group), helped stir antigovernment sentiment
throughout the area by indiscriminately attacking villages
and murdering civilians. Two American military officers were
dispatched to advise on "restoring and maintaining
discipline" among the troops, the Department of State
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. Many
of the officials taking part in the early discussions at
mid-level had direct experience in Liberia, and some had
tutored Doe in everything from diplomatic protocol to
separation of powers. Having directed the heavy investment
in promoting Liberia's "experiment in democracy," most
thought the policy was working and "fought like hell to
maintain it," in the words of one dissenter.
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
"We deployed a large marine amphibious force near Liberia to
evacuate U.S. citizens, an operation accomplished with great
efficiency," Cohen said in the previously cited interview.
"A modest intervention at that point to end the fighting in
Monrovia could have avoided the prolonged conflict." The
decision to deploy the four-ship task force was taken on May
31, 1990 by the Deputies Committee, chaired by Scowcroft's
number two, Robert Gates, and officials hoped the move was
"Gates worried that if we sent the Marines ashore, desperate
Liberians would rush the embassy and CNN would be there
showing the grisly sight," a participant in the deputies
sessions said. Meanwhile, horror stories from Liberia
received little attention in the United States, even though
the fighting was moving into Monrovia and claiming hundreds
Although there was widespread disappointment with the
American approach, respect for U.S. power remained high. In
August 1990, the White House saw first-hand what direct
involvement could achieve. Officials wanted to mount a
rescue effort for Americans and other foreigners trapped by
the fighting in Monrovia without landing Marines in the
capital. A convoy of vehicles was organized to travel from
the U.S. embassy through an area of Monrovia where many
other foreign embassies were located (and where foreigners
had taken refuge) and then south 65 miles to Buchanan,
Liberia's second largest city. The plan required cooperation
from rebel leader Taylor, whose forces controlled Buchanan.
Taylor had sent signals that he wanted to work with the U.S.
government, but many officials remained skeptical of his
intentions. After lengthy discussion, Admiral David
Jeremiah, deputy to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Colin Powell, placed a call to Taylor by satellite phone.
Taylor agree to allow evacuation helicopters to land, and
the rescue took place without incident.
A more dramatic demonstration of what Washington could do
came the following month during a trip to West Africa by
Assistant Secretary Cohen following the capture and killing
of Doe by another rebel faction, headed by former Taylor
protigi Prince Johnson. A multinational West African
peacekeeping force dispatched to Liberia in late August had
managed to separate combatants but was itself coming under
heavy fire from Taylor's troops.
Mediation efforts had failed repeatedly, but Taylor told
Cohen he would agree to a U.S.-brokered truce. "With the
United States involved, we can have peace," Taylor's
spokesman said when the cease-fire was announced. News of
the break-through was not well received at the White House
where officials accused Cohen of exceeding policy guidance.
"He was ordered to come home and explain his actions,"
according to one official involved in the incident.
Taylor felt tricked, as he confirmed during an interview the
following year. Asked in a tape-recorded session his
attitude towards the United States, where he lived for
several years, Taylor said "we appreciate America's
concern." And he added: "We have had long ties, and we are
not stupid enough to believe those ties should be broken."
The cease-fire incident left a scar. Tom Woewiyu, Taylor's
defense minister until he broke away last year, said the
rebel army, known as the National Patriotic Front of
Liberia, had postponed a full-force assault on the capital
for several months at the urging of U.S. officials. "The
Americans told us, 'it looks like Doe is going to leave--
why don't you hold off,' and we did because we didn't want
to see Monrovia and its people destroyed."
After Taylor realized that Washington had no intention of
actively backing the accord he had made with Cohen, he
feared he had been the victim of a American and Nigerian
scheme to keep him from taking power. The delay probably
cost the Front the chance to seize control of Monrovia,
because the Nigerian-directed West African force was later
able to push the rebels out of the capital, the only part of
Liberia they never captured.
When hostilities returned to fever pitch in Monrovia, the
city became a 'killing field' of previously unimaginable
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.
"Unless television images come into American living rooms of
little starving babies," former President Jimmy Carter said
in a 1993 interview with the author, "the U.S. government
just looks the other way and pays very little attention to
what's going on in Africa." In the case of Liberia, there
was almost no TV coverage.
Several members of Congress did press the administration to
seek additional avenues for actions. One of those urging
higher-level U.S. diplomatic activity in Liberia was
Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum, now chairman of the
Subcommittee on Africa Affairs of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee."We have a responsibility to help fix
some of the problems we helped create," she said in a 1992
One idea mentioned more and more frequently as fighting grew
heavier towards the middle of 1990 was the "Marcos option"
-- a U.S.-managed departure for Doe like the one arranged by
the Reagan administration for Philippine President Ferdinand
Marcos. But the NSC Deputies Committee refused to let the
State Department make such an offer to Doe, fearing further
entanglement. As an alternative to American leadership, the
administration gave encouragement to West African mediation
and peacekeeping, initiated by the 16-nation Economic
Community of West African States (Ecowas), with Nigeria
playing a leading role.
"Ecowas said 'this is our responsibility' and they have been
doing their best to handle what is a terrible situation,"
Scowcroft said in the previously cited interview. "If it can
be handled by states in the area then that is how it should
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
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. ECOWAS troops have been
accused of various misdeeds, including some extensive
looting in the early days, and they have at times turned
brutal in the face of resistance to their authority,
particularly from Taylor's NPFL.
Nevertheless, the West African initiative represents the
first time that a regional body had intervened to stop a
conflict in its own region, and there is little disagreement
that military and political actions of ECOWAS have saved
many lives, at considerable cost to the member states. With
Nigeria in the lead, participating nations have spent well
in excess of $500 million in Liberia, according to estimates
by both U.S. and Nigerian government officials. The
operation is one of the largest in the world and the only
major peacekeeping effort not run by the United Nations.
Before the world body established a Liberian observer
mission in late 1993, the only significant outside
assistance for the West African effort was about $30 million
from the United States. After a lengthy interagency debate
early last year, the Clinton administration approved another
$30 million to underwrite deployment of troops from outside
the region. 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, but it is difficult to
find a Liberian who doubts that firm U.S. leadership would
have made a decisive difference. Many U.S. officials, too,
now share Cohen's assessment that more could have been
achieved without creating a quagmire.
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.
The same tentativeness that characterized Liberia
decision-making has been exhibited in a number of other
crises in Africa and beyond. ...
What could be interpreted as a tacit admission that a new
approach is needed is contained in a re-examination of
policy towards Africa, National Security Review 30, carried
out by the Bush administration in the final months before
Clinton took office. "There is little to be lost and much to
be gained through an activist policy," the study concludes.
"Our enormous relief efforts could be lessened by actions
designed to eliminate the causes -- political,
environmental, and economic -- of the crises to which we
must respond. A diplomacy aimed at prevention and resolution
of conflict is the sine qua non of an effective pursuit of
all U.S. goals in the region."
Crisis prevention has been the watchword of Clinton policy
as well. "In the face of all the tensions that are now
gripping the continent," the president told the White House
Conference on Africa last year, "we need a new Africa policy
based on the idea that we should help the nations of Africa
identify and solve problems before they erupt." However,
this administration, like its predecessor, has seldom found
the political will to forcefully confront Africa's crises --
even when they bear American fingerprints.
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.