NEW YORK, July 20 (UPI) -- Liberia is one of those "you don'twanna know" countries.
People think the media will print or broadcast anything, but
there's an unwritten line beyond which no reporter dares to
Imagine taking a 13-year-old boy, showing him how to fire an
automatic weapon, giving him a ragtag uniform, and telling him
that if he follows the orders of his superiors -- the 15-to-17-
year-olds -- then he'll be allowed to rape women and girls right
along with them. We don't really report those circumstances in
wars except in vague detail.
For the boy's first time out, though, he might be scared, so
you show him how to ingest large quantities of drugs and alcohol.
When they raze the village, they think he'll perform better if
he's on auto-pilot. Besides, when he becomes an addict, he'll be
more pliable. We report the razed village, but we shy away from
the glazed eyes of the pillagers.
The boy will also learn how to use a machete, usually just
to terrify people by hacking off a limb here and gouging out an
eye there. If he practices, he'll be able to do it in a single
blow, samurai-style, and the power will be so thrilling that
after a while he won't have to be supervised. These maimings will
turn up in a United Nations report one of these days, duly
sanitized for the pages of a family newspaper.
Because they were mostly boys, many of the Liberian militias
of the early 1990s were fond of Halloween-party-type uniforms.
Looted wedding dresses and shower caps were especially popular,
although the proud Butt Naked Brigade fought, as their name
implied, entirely nude except for tennis shoes. It made for good
copy when reporters wrote about George Boley and Roosevelt
Johnson, killer warlords who have long since been vanquished.
(General Butt Naked, as he was known at the time, is retired and
apparently atoning, as he now preaches the gospel on the streets
Then when genuine elections were finally held in 1997, they
were supervised by Jimmy Carter's Carter Center, who pronounced
them fair and honest -- and yet the people voted for Charles
Taylor, one of these very warlords and, as it turned out, one who
was not yet finished with his jungle atrocities.
Now, with the country once again in chaos, Taylor has agreed
to step down -- not such a big sacrifice, since his presidential
term is over anyway -- but wants a guarantee of asylum in Nigeria.
Everyone is waffling on the asylum issue, especially since the
special prosecutor for his special war-crimes tribunal is ex-
Pentagon official David Crane, but over the past several weeks
Liberia has been popping up on the radar repeatedly as one of the
places where we MUST intervene.
But why? Why now? Intervention in Liberia is the very
essence of nation-building, which President Bush expressly
disavowed in the 2000 election campaign. There's no threat to
national security from Liberia. There's no risk of the country
turning Communist or militantly Islamic, because the people
already love us. The boy armies would be reason enough, but we've
never really let the boy armies affect us in the past. There's a
disconnect. It's "an African thing." Any kid exploited that way
in America would be avenged with several life sentences, at the
least, for the perpetrators. In Africa it's presented as
something atrocious but sad.
The only rationale given for intervention now is that we
have a "special relationship" with Liberia, since the nation was
established by freed American slaves in 1822 -- or, more properly,
philanthropic whites who forced some tribal chieftains to sell
land to the freed slaves -- just as neighboring Sierra Leone had
been founded by freed British slaves a little earlier. But if
this is the reason for intervention, why didn't we intervene in
April 1980 when an illiterate Army sergeant named Samuel Doe
hacked the president to death in his bed and then, in a drunken
blood orgy, strapped his 13 ministers to telephone poles on the
beach and slowly eviscerated them? That was the first time in 135
years that the American-style constitutional government of the
country had been violated. Liberia, the only black African
country that was never subject to colonialism, and the most
stable one, was destroyed by a single act of brutal violence.
That was the moment when U.S. Marines were needed.
I don't think anyone even agitated for intervention in 1980.
We were in the middle of a presidential campaign, there were
American hostages in Iran, we were boycotting the Moscow
Olympics, and Jimmy Carter was not much of a send-in-the-troops
sort of guy in the first place. But when he continued diplomatic
relations with Samuel Doe -- and then when President Reagan propped
up Doe with $60 million in military aid the following year -- our
position was loud and clear: It was an African matter. Forget the
likely killing of civilians accustomed to generations of peace.
Forget the strategic military role Liberia played in World War
II. Forget the Firestone rubber plantation, largest in the world.
There was no talk of the "special relationship" in 1980 or 1981,
when troops would have mattered and the constitution could have
The fact is, we bailed on Liberia. And while we were
bailing, the Charles Taylors of the world were moving into the
void. Taylor is a chameleon, able to present himself as a tribal
aborigine when he needs to (his mother was an aborigine, his
father an American) and other times portraying himself as the
heir to the American-backed True Whig Party, which ruled in the
western style up until 1980. Today he calls himself Ghankay
Charles MacArthur Dapkana Taylor (and nobody calls him "Chuck").
But Taylor never had any affection for the True Whigs, who
descend from the American slaves who settled the country between
1820 and 1865. As an economics student at Bentley College in
Massachusetts during the 1970s, he was active in an anti-True
Whig student group that once overran the Liberian UN office in
New York as an act of agitation. After Samuel Doe and 16 fellow
assassins mutilated the sleeping President William R. Tolbert,
Taylor was on the first plane to Monrovia, where he ingratiated
himself into Doe's administration, becoming director of the
Liberian General Services Agency, only to flee the country four
years later when Doe accused him of embezzling $900,000 that
should have been used to buy stuff for the government.
Ramsey Clark, who handled Taylor's political asylum case in
the U.S., says the embezzlement charges may or may not have been
true. It could have been Doe's way of getting rid of Taylor, but
given what we now know about Taylor's penchant for diamonds, it
could also be that his fingers were too sticky even by Liberian
standards. What we do know is that Taylor decided not to wait
around for an INS hearing. Instead he broke out of the Plymouth
County House of Corrections in Massachusetts and vanished into
the hinterlands of the Ivory Coast. By 1990 he was leading one of
the many boy armies that besieged Monrovia.
That particular war ended in an equally grisly way. Doe was
fooled by a truce, seized, beaten and mutilated on videotape --
while 2500 U.S. Marines waited on the outskirts of the city for
their chance to evacuate American personnel. Then the nation
descended into several years of looting, rape, pillage and chaos
that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, while first Bush, then
Clinton basically kept their hands in their pockets. Special
Meanwhile, as Taylor grew to dominate the countryside, he
recruited boy armies to support the RUF terrorists in Sierra
Leone, and after they took the land around the diamond mines in
that country, hot diamonds started passing through Liberia on
their way to unscrupulous buyers in Russia, Israel and the U.S.
(How many American brides with new wedding rings know they paid a
commission to Samuel Taylor on the purchase?) He also used all
that ready cash to hire mercenary gangsters from Lebanon,
Ukraine, Russia and some especially nasty neo-Nazi South
Africans. And in his spare time, he sent money and men to support
terrorists who would destabilize Guinea, another country he never
liked. The story reads like "Scarface," except he was the elected
president of a democratic country.
In other words, Liberia didn't become rotten yesterday.
Nothing has really changed there since 1980, when a free
democratic system was overthrown by cutthroats. Why are we so
hesitant to just SAY that, and say that our goal is to return to
the pre-1980 Liberia? Because it would be politically incorrect
to support the Americo-Liberians over the aborigines? It's the
True Whigs, after all, who had started the liberalization process
to bring aborigines into the mainstream -- a gesture of liberalism
that ended up being their death sentence.
And now there's talk of sending in a token force to make
sure free elections are held. The last elections were free, too.
Charles Taylor got 80 percent of the vote. Why? Because people
were scared of him. It will be no different this time. What's
needed is not another token Marine force, or another Carter
Center election, but a Paul Bremer for Liberia who will rip up
the current way of doing things and start from scratch, with an
eye to restoring influence to the civilized minority. It worked
for Teddy Roosevelt in 1909, when Liberia was all but bankrupt
and in danger of becoming unstable; Roosevelt simply set up a
commission to reorganize things, and forced the international
banking system to help. By 1952 the nation was debt-free. If
we're getting into nation-building, let's not be half-assed about
Until that happens, our "special relationship" will just
breed more boy armies, rendering the countryside so dangerous
that no man, woman or child is safe, and Liberia won't be good
for anything except registering your tanker.
Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at
joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.