Unfree Liberia

Western intervention is inflaming tensions in the civil war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

What is behind the latest upsurge in Liberia’s 14-year civil war?

On 18 July, the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) escalated its offensive against the capital Monrovia, the last stronghold of its enemy President Charles Taylor. On 28 July, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) seized Buchanan, Liberia’s second city. According to reports, the violence has left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

Many are demanding an American or UN-led intervention to ‘enforce peace’. President Bush has sent three ships to Liberian waters, with 2,300 marines on board. Yet some commentators denounce Bush for ‘not doing enough’, claiming that the naval manoeuvres are just ‘a symbolic shift in US policy’ (1). For the UK Guardian, ‘Liberia is a sad reminder of the urgent need for the UN to overhaul its peacekeeping operations’ (2).

All those calling for outside intervention overlook one important thing: it was American meddling that upped the ante over the past two weeks, encouraging the rebel assault on Monrovia. By demanding that President Taylor step down – and by making progress ‘conditional’ on Taylor stepping down (3) – the USA emboldened the rebel assault on Liberian government forces. If events in Liberia are a ‘sad reminder’ of anything, it is that internationalising local conflicts makes things worse.

There has been conflict in Liberia for 14 years, since Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia launched a campaign against then President Samuel Doe in 1989. Following Taylor’s victory in the 1997 elections, the rebel group LURD, backed by neighbouring Guinea, has built up anti-Taylor forces, managing to seize much of northern Liberia. Outside intervention has played no small part in Liberia’s tensions. In particular, US backing for Taylor’s forces initially, and later, according to some reports, for LURD, has served to sustain tensions (4).

In June this year there were talks in Ghana over how to resolve Liberia’s conflict, leading to a fragile ceasefire. Yet now violence in Liberia is at its worst in years. For all the reports of Liberia’s ‘drug-crazed’ gunmen (and children) who just want to wreak havoc (5), two events encouraged the rebel upsurge and the bloody storming of Monrovia: the United Nations’ indictment of Taylor as a war criminal in June, and President Bush’s demand that Taylor ‘must leave’ in July.

On 4 June, the UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone indicted Taylor for ‘war crimes’. Taylor was accused of backing Sierra Leone’s rebel forces during the conflict there in the late 1990s. Whatever the truth of Taylor’s role in Sierra Leone, the court’s timing in branding him a criminal was questioned by some commentators. One report claimed that the court decision was ‘ill-timed’, coming when Taylor was negotiating with his Liberian rebel opponents, and ‘likely to prolong bloodshed in Liberia’ (6). Indeed, after the UN-backed indictment, anti-Taylor rebels launched a renewed assault on Liberian government forces.

On 2 July 2003, President Bush announced that, ‘one thing has to happen: Mr Taylor needs to leave the country’ (7). Bush claimed that progress in Liberia was ‘conditional’ on Taylor leaving. The UN-backed indictment of Taylor, followed by Bush’s demands, made clear the international community’s ruling on Liberia’s tensions. This boosted the rebel forces, leading to an increase in their attacks on government forces. Days after Bush’s statement, the rebels launched their bitter assault on Monrovia.

The Liberia tragedy illustrates the broader destabilising impact of ‘humanitarian intervention’ on world affairs. It is striking that, in contrast to the African liberation movements of old, the Liberian rebels and their supporters are demanding American or UN-led intervention to resolve their conflict. For rebel leaders, the assault on Monrovia and other Liberian cities is not only about attacking Taylor’s power, but also about encouraging outside interest and a Western-imposed settlement.

Who was it that encouraged the Bush administration to turn its attention towards Liberia? Largely, American and European liberals. In response to the Iraq war, liberals attacked America by accusing it of being ‘selective’ in its choice of humanitarian interventions. Liberal commentator Arianna Huffington asked why the Iraq-obsessed Bush overlooked Liberia, in ‘Africa’s heart of darkness, riven by mutilation and rape…. Here is true evil’ (8). Another journalist described Liberia as another of Africa’s tragedies, alongside AIDS and civil war, which ‘the North hasn’t cared much about’ (9). Liberia, once a symbol of freedom after being founded by freed American slaves in 1847, is now held up as an indicator of the perils of independence.

Now, as Bush makes moves over Liberia, some on the American right have asked why he is launching a ‘Clinton-style’ liberal intervention in Africa. Bush’s creeping Liberian venture shows that American leaders (and European ones, too) are increasingly drawn to the international arena in their quest for some kind of moral authority at home. For all Bush’s Republican credentials and pre-office promises of not going abroad, he too is executing ‘humanitarian interventions’.

For Bush’s anti-war critics, the problem with America’s interventions is that they are too selective. Instead, we apparently need more of them, in the right kind of places – especially in the barbaric ‘heart of darkness’ that is Africa. This shows that anti-war critics fully support the West’s right to intervene abroad – and completely underestimate its consequences. As America turns towards Liberia, and Monrovia burns, the liberals have got what they asked for.

Read on:

Cross-border terrorism: a mess made by the West, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Bush makes symbolic shift on Liberia, but dying continues, Reed Kramer, AllAfrica, 28 July 2003

(2) Wanted: UN peace force, Guardian, 29 July 2003

(3) Heavy shelling in Liberian capital, Alexandra Zavis, San Francisco Chronicle, 25 July 2003

(4) What’s behind the crisis in Liberia?, Lee Sustar, Counterpunch, 12 July 2003

(5) ‘Desperate, dying: Liberia’s war victims wait for George Bush to make up his mind’, Declan Walsh, Independent, 12 July 2003

(6) ‘Sierra Leone loathes Liberia’s Taylor’, Newsday, 2 July 2003

(7) Bush urges Taylor to leave Liberia, mulls troops, Reuters, 2 July 2003

(8) And human rights for all?, Arianna Huffington, AlterNet, 3 July 2003

(9) The selective global cop, Geov Parrish, Working for Change, 3 July 2003

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