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On Liberia: Intervention for me, but not for thee

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 7, 2003

Liberians holding placards and a U.S. flag demonstrate against President Charles Taylor in front of the U.S. embassy on July 3
Liberians holding placards and a U.S. flag demonstrate against President Charles Taylor in front of the U.S. embassy on July 3

Just when you thought the United States was a hated imperialist superpower using its might to achieve global hegemony, calls for yet another American military intervention abroad are coming from surprising sources.

The United Nations, European diplomats, leaders of developing nations in Africa and the antiwar left's darling in the Democratic presidential field, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, have all called upon the United States to send troops to Liberia. Their mission would then be to lead a multilateral peacekeeping force and avert the catastrophic results of continued fighting between rebels and troops loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor. As pressure for U.S. involvement built, President Bush responded by dispatching military experts to the region to assess the requirements for enforcing the latest precarious cease-fire.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan proclaimed that there were "lots of expectations that the U.S. may be prepared to lead this force" and that "all eyes are on them." French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin advocated U.S. intervention on the grounds that "France has assumed its responsibilities in Ivory Coast, the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone and the United States has a tradition in Liberia." Dean distinguished his support for entering Liberia with his strident opposition to the war in Iraq: "The situation in Liberia is exactly the opposite. There is an imminent threat of serious human catastrophe and the world community is asking the United States to exercise its leadership."

It can be debated whether there was a legitimate national interest in going to war against Iraq. But the principal argument for such a war was that deposing Saddam Hussein would enhance American security. Protecting Americans from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction is a constitutional responsibility of the federal government. What national interest exists in Liberia?

The arguments don't get much better than Dean's. Some point out that Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, who were settled there by American anti-slavery societies. Its original constitution was based on ours, as is its national flag, its capital city Monrovia is named after U.S. President James Monroe and it was governed for much of its history by the "Americo-Liberians" descended from former American slaves. Others note that Liberia was a Cold War ally. (If anything, Liberia might be a case study in how American intervention can backfire on its intended beneficiaries.) According to the Washington Post, a European intelligence report found that Taylor had harbored al-Qaida after September 11, 2001, but his regime is on the brink of collapse without U.S. involvement. Finally, some believe intervening in Liberia would be good public relations in the aftermath of controversial actions in Iraq that divided the world. President Bush may well be persuaded by that argument, sending troops to Liberia for reasons similar to his father's decision to send troops to Somalia after the first Gulf War.

In short, the strategic case for this humanitarian mission is somewhat less than overwhelming. This would arguably constitute a greater example of the U.S. acting as policeman of the world than an Iraq war that was at least justified on the basis of preemptive self-defense – this is an explicit case of us going into stop an ugly fight and a nasty dictator. So why are so many of those who opposed that war clamoring for Americans to get involved in this one?

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the United Nations, the European Union and all those the Hudson Institute's John Fonte characterizes as "transnational progressives" don't object to American power in principle as long as it is being used for their purposes, as opposed to something like those pesky American national interests. Transnational progressives are as willing to use the U.S. military to reshape the world as neoconservatives, but they differ as to who should be in control of that force. Unlike the latter, transnational progressives don't want it to be America. Like hired help, they want the Americans to come in and do the heavy lifting, but under conditions set by the so-called "world community" and according to what they are told.

That's why none of the usual suspects objected to the U.S. sending troops to Haiti under Bill Clinton in order to "restore democracy." Relatively few of them complained when Clinton bombed Serbia and intervened in Kosovo for humanitarian purposes without formal U.N. sanction. When then UN Ambassador Madeline Albright asked Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it," she wasn't roundly denounced as a warmonger. Can you imagine if reports emerged that Donald Rumsfeld said something like that? Such criticism only takes place when the U.S. acts in accord with its own perceived interests independently of any international body.

Again, people of good will can disagree about whether the Iraq war was in the U.S. national interest. But when an American president calls for regime change in a foreign land based on the argument that it will protect Americans, he is ridiculed as a cowboy and criticized as a threat to world peace. When regime change will protect someone else or is justified by humanitarian concerns, and is conducted in conjunction with Europe or the U.N., it is perfectly fine.

Much of the world views the U.S. no differently than particularly spoiled adolescents view their parents: A source of money and protection that should just keep paying and otherwise shut up and butt out. This attitude is apparent in De Villepin's recent comments on the U.S. sending troops to Liberia. When asked about President Bush's requirement that the strongman Taylor step down before any forces are committed, France's foreign minister, just after calling for the U.S. to handle the situation responded, "In such conflict resolution, outside dictatorship does not help anybody." In other words, don't assert decision-making authority, just shut up and send the troops.

America's military is likely to be further extended in yet another commitment. This ought to be a cause of concern, especially in the context of the war on terror. But that is one of those inconsequential American national interests, something that apparently should not be considered as long as we keep providing troops and paying the bills at the U.N.'s request. Talk about a "humble" foreign policy.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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