Why Liberia turns to its American 'big brother'
For a country with little economic, military, or geopolitical value to the United States, Liberia has managed to climb to the top of the Bush administration's agenda.Skip to next paragraph
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Within the next three days, about 2,000 US marines are expected to station themselves off the coast of the war-torn country to support a West African peacekeeping force. The US has said, however, that it will not lead any peacekeeping operation and has indicated that most of the troops are unlikely to go ashore.
On Wednesday, the US asked the United Nations to authorize an international peacekeeping force. Paving the way, a Nigerian-led inspection team arrived in Liberia yesterday.
For weeks, Liberians had invoked their country's historical ties to the US to persuadetheir transatlantic "big brother" to help end the three-year war between rebel insurgents and President Charles Taylor.
Created in 1847 as a haven for freed American slaves, Liberia is the closest thing in Africa to a former US colony. Over the years, it has been a solid bit player in US foreign policy.But since the mid-1980s, ties have largely been severed.
For more than 120 years, the Liberian government was the US republican system writ small. A US grade-schooler could be forgiven for mistaking Liberia's bicameral legislature and separation of powers for Uncle Sam's own. The founding former slaves, who made up less than 5 percent of Liberia's population, wore American clothes, spoke English, and even installed themselves as masters in a system of slavery like the one they had fled.
During the 20th century, Liberia played a role in America's World War II effort, with African rubber sailing to American factories from Liberian ports. As the cold war heated up, the airport in Monrovia, the capital, provided US military aircraft 24-hour-a-day landing rights. From Liberia, the US beamed Voice of America programs and relayed radio communications to its embassies around the continent. A 1,400-ft. radio tower guided US ships and planes operating in the Atlantic. Throughout the first half of the 1980s, the West African nation received some $500 million in military aid, the largest amount given to any African country.
But as the US began promoting democracy in the developing world as a buffer against Soviet communism, Liberia fell out of favor. The oppression of native groups by the Americo-Liberians, as the descendants of the former slaves were known, became antithetical to the US's pro-democracy agenda.
"[The US] actually turned against the Americo-Liberian elite, regarding them as aristocratic residue of a former tyrant - aristocrats who paid little attention to the indigenous population," says Chris Melville, Central and West Africa analyst for World Markets Research Centre in London.
Things changed briefly when Samuel Doe took power in a 1980 coup. He became a favorite of the Reagan administration. "The US began to see his coup as a kind of revolution, the revenge of these ethnic groups against the Americo-Liberians," says Mr. Melville.
Mr. Doe, uneducated and politically green, became a US puppet. He was anti-Soviet and a bulwark against Libya's president, Muammar Qaddafi, who was accused of running terrorist training camps and meddling in countries around Africa. To show its favor toward Doe, the US turned a blind eye when he allegedly stole the 1985 election.
But Doe, too, soon fell out with the US. He was known for killing his political opponents, and tens of millions of dollars that the US sent him went unaccounted for. In 1987, 17 Americans were sent to run the country's finances, though they wound up leaving six months into their two-year stay because of growing unrest from rebel groups that wanted to oust Doe.
The CIA may have even tried to topple Doe, in one of dozens of coup attempts against him. In his book, "The Skull Beneath the Skin," author Mark Huband writes that a deputy in Doe's security services, who had unsuccessfully attacked Doe's convoy in an effort to overthrow him, said that a "US adviser" had helped instigate his failed coup.
Mr. Taylor eventually took power in 1990. Taylor graduated from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in 1977. He was briefly jailed in the US for embezzling money from the Liberian government, but escaped and later emerged as head of the rebel group that helped topple Doe.
The US never established formal relations with Taylor because of alleged links to Mr. Qaddafi. Even before he took power, the US had begun turning to other West African countries to replace Liberia as the strategic center of the region.