Why Liberia turns to its American 'big brother'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

How strong are the ties?

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.

Did the 1980s shatter the links?

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.

Should the US intervene?

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.

But in an interview with The Washington Times last week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while US interests in Liberia may not be "strategic" or "vital," there is still reason for intervention, including what he called the two countries' "historical links."

He also cited the recent successful missions by the British and French, who helped end wars in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. He said that the most powerful nation on earth has an "obligation" to help needy places.

"We looked away once in Rwanda, with tragic consequences," he said, referring to the killing of more than a half million people there in 1994.

Still, with thousands of US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the Pentagon and White House have balked at overcommitting to Liberia.

But Melville says that Iraq and Afghanistan are precisely why the US would want to get involved. While those countries are skeptical of having US troops in their backyard, Liberians have begged for American help. This makes for good public relations, he says. "When the State Department wants to put a humanitarian gloss on US foreign policy, to use military might outside narrowly defined strategic interests, they can invoke historical ties as a way to justify [intervening]," says Melville.

Who's who

President Charles Taylor

• Born in 1948 to a Liberian mother and an Americo-Liberian father.

• Graduated in 1977 from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

• Accused of embezzling more than $900,000 from the Liberian government in the mid-1980s. Fled to the US where he was jailed, but later escaped.

• Reemerged in 1989 as leader of a rebel group intent on ousting President Samuel Doe. The US sent marines to evacuate the US Embassy in 1990 as fighting intensified. Taylor took power that year when Doe was toppled.

• Elected president in 1997.

• Indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone by a UN-backed tribunal on charges of supporting rebel groups blamed for atrocities.

Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)

• Formed in 2000, Liberia's largest insurgency group seeks to oust Taylor through military and political means.

• Reportedly supported by Guinea and displaced and exiled Liberians, and tacitly backed by the US through its support of Guinea.

• Condemned by human rights groups for killings, rape, torture, and kidnapping.

• LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), a spinoff rebel group formed in March, control around two-thirds of Liberia.

ECOMOG

• The armed Monitoring Group of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It was first deployed in 1990 to halt factional fighting in Liberia.

• It has since conducted intervention or peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, and Ivory Coast.

• It is not a standing army. Instead, troops and funds are donated by member nations for specific missions.

• The US has helped train ECOMOG and contributed more than $100 million to its efforts.

- Compiled by Teresa Méndez

Sources: PBS, BBC, US Embassy Fact Sheet, globalsecurity.org

A brief history of US-Liberian relations

1822 Liberia is first settled by former American slaves. Two years later, the main settlement is renamed Monrovia for US President James Monroe.

July 26, 1847 Liberia is officially founded. National flag is based on America's Stars and Stripes.

June 3, 1862 US formally recog-nizes Liberia's independence.

May 8, 1917 Under pressure from the US and Britain, Liberia declares war on Germany.

1926 Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. opens a plantation.

January 27, 1944 Liberia enters World War II, declaring war against Germany and Japan.

August 1957 The US erects a Voice of America relay, one of several US communications facilities on Liberian soil during the cold war.

1962 US Peace Corps begins operating in Liberia, continues for nearly 30 years.

1978 President Jimmy Carter makes first official US presidential visit to Liberia.

1981 Samuel Doe takes power in a coup, receives more than $500 million in US military aid over the next half decade.

1987 US sends 17 experts to manage Liberia's finances. They leave six months later because of growing unrest.

1990 Charles Taylor topples Doe. The US sends 2,000 troops to evacuate Embassy personnel and US citizens.

2003 President Bush sends 2,000 marines to support West African peacekeeping forces.

Source: PBS, staff research

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