Commentary: Liberia is for tankers

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large  |  July 20, 2003 at 7:03 PM
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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

of Monrovia.)

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

been saved.

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

relationship anyone?

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 or through his Web site at Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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