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COLUMN

Whether to Intervene In Liberia

Daniel Barclay

The recent humanitarian disaster in Liberia placed pressure on the United States to send a peacekeeping force to its troubled former dependency. Loath to commit almost-overextended troops to a place of uncertain relevance to the national interest, the U.S. balked. Instead, it offered logistical assistance for an interim West African peacekeeping force. Liberians and others were disappointed, but largely accepted the position as a minimal American contribution.

The Liberia episode leaves in its wake two salient questions: Was American strategy correct? And if so, how effectively was it implemented?

Curiously, the second issue has more consequence than the first. The cases for and against intervention were close to even; either would be a viable option. However, the success of each plan was based less on its merits than on its public perception. By portraying its position favorably, the U.S. was able to compensate for a plan not inherently disposed to be viewed as such.

What the American decision against significant intervention lacked in popularity, it made up for in expediency. American actions avoided tying up troops at a time when they were badly needed. With 16 of the Army’s 33 active combat brigades in Iraq for the foreseeable future, several others also deployed overseas, and protracted National Guard call-ups threatening to damage future recruitment efforts, any additional deployments should naturally have been regarded with a certain skepticism. Even the mere 2,300 troops that the U.S. sent to Liberia could have been sorely missed if left there on an extended basis.

The policy the U.S. chose definitely minimized its risks, at least in the short term. No chance of providing indirect encouragement to Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, of a reduced capability to meet emerging threats, of a blow to military morale, of another Somalia. The security risks of inaction were negligible.

But relative inaction involved the forfeiture of benefits that could have been gained. Most immediate of these was the greater stability that a more robust intervention would have brought to Liberia and neighboring countries, significantly reducing both the current bloodshed and the potential for more in the future. By alleviating a humanitarian disaster, the United States would have demonstrated its commitment to Africa beyond a doubt. A case of the United States using its military might for unequivocally positive purposes, while being unequivocally welcomed by the local populace, would have helped calm anti-American sentiment in some quarters left over from Gulf War II. The goodwill thus engendered would have moderated other countries’ calls for other, perhaps less auspicious, American peacekeeping ventures in the future. In the very long term, American assistance to Liberia in its hour of need could have cemented the special relationship between the two countries, giving America an immutable African ally.

The strategic debate may be oversimplified to one of minor harms to national security versus minor gains to international standing. Compelling arguments abounded for and against intervention, with no clear trump card to give one side a decisive advantage.

Accordingly, the decision itself diminished in importance. The paramount American interest lay not in deciding on the optimal plan, but in executing that plan optimally. Benign public perception was crucial to make intervention a success, and to avoid making nonintervention a failure.

The battle of policy thus gave way to the battle of public opinion. The administration wanted to put the best face on its position of relative disengagement, while those who disagreed hoped to shame it into further action.

Interventionists won the first round. The reports emerging from Liberia were appalling, and an upcoming presidential visit to Africa placed extra pressure on the U.S. to send peacekeeping troops as a way of demonstrating its commitment to the continent. Caught off guard, the administration hinted that troops might be forthcoming and dispatched a fact-finding team to Liberia. Mixed messages ensued.

But as impatience for a decision grew, so did the coherency of the administration’s defense. The U.S. would consider sending peacekeeping troops, but only with the precondition of Taylor’s departure. No fool, Taylor swiftly fired back a reciprocal declaration that he would step down as soon as peacekeepers arrived. Diplomats used the deadlock to establish a tenuous cease-fire between Taylor’s government and the rebels.

However, as interventionists were quick to point out, such a cease-fire would be only transitory in the absence of peacekeepers. The riposte: since Taylor still showed no signs of leaving, the U.S. could not change tack and send them in without caving to the whims of a second-rate despot. The only alternative, went this line of reasoning, was to send in West African peacekeepers.

While the West Africans prepared, the cease-fire unsurprisingly collapsed. Renewed bloodshed in Monrovia brought with it renewed calls for concrete American action. But by now the interventionist cause was already lost -- the raging violence, Taylor’s continued hold on power, and the forthcoming West Africans had obviated the practicality of a robust American presence. Still, American inaction in the face of human suffering made for some distinctly uncomfortable moments during the two weeks before the West African peacekeepers finally arrived.

To sum up: The presidential visit was undermined to a substantial extent, and the American commitment to Africa was called into question. Many Liberians lost faith in their “big brother.” And the fact that the U.S. seemingly stood idly by while people perished did not play well in the court of public opinion.

Still, while the U.S. did not act as vigorously as many would have liked, it did act --to organize cease-fires, persuade Taylor to step down, and support a peacekeeping force. This fact, coupled with the plausible excuse that intervention was impossible so long as violence and Taylor remained, served to take much of the edge off American quiescence. The U.S. mostly achieved its primary goal of avoiding a significant deployment --although this was not necessarily the best move -- and its secondary goal of limiting negative fallout.

American actions were somewhat callous, yet effective. Confronted with an unpleasant situation, the administration developed a workable plan and a workable means to implement it. The cost in American prestige and Liberian lives was very real, but far smaller than it could have been.

The recent bloodshed has been a tragedy for Liberia, international stability, and humanity, but not American foreign policy.

Daniel Barclay is a member of the class of 2007.