History repeats itself in Liberia

After a political rival murdered a New York City councilman in City Hall last week, the killer was shot dead by a policeman. Imagine the reaction if, instead, he'd been offered his victim's office in exchange for disarming. But that's the equivalent of what has happened in the past in Liberia and is happening again.

Samuel Doe, Liberia's dictator from 1980 to 1990, came to power by mutilating and murdering his predecessor. As corrupt as he was incompetent, Doe nevertheless survived numerous coup attempts by being more ruthless than his challengers. When he rigged the elections in 1985, the Reagan administration defended them as "relatively" free and fair.

At the end of 1989, Charles Taylor launched an attempt to overthrow Doe. By June 1990, fighting raged in the streets of Monrovia, the capital, and scores of innocent civilians were killed each day. The first President Bush ordered a three-ship task force with 2,000 marines and 2,500 sailors to take position off the coast. Two months later, as the situation became even worse, several hundred US marines were sent ashore, but only to protect the embassy and evacuate foreigners.

Shortly after that, a West African peacekeeping force, led by Nigeria, landed in Monrovia's port. Doe, thinking the Nigerians would protect him, visited their headquarters one day. He was wrong. A rebel faction captured him there and within hours he lay dead and mutilated.

Despite Doe's death, the war continued as one peace agreement after another was made and then broken. In 1996, American forces intervened again, but only to evacuate foreigners. In 1997, elections were held with UN assistance.

Taylor made clear that if he lost he would resume the war. The international community, anxious for any peaceful outcome, sat by as he blackmailed his way to the presidency.

The West African peacekeepers finally departed in 1999, nearly a decade after they arrived. When they were not embroiled in the fighting, they spent their time looting. The peace didn't last as Taylor proved even more ruthless, corrupt, and incompetent than Doe, and two rebel groups sprang up seeking to overthrow him.

As a result, Monrovia is today once again besieged, and innocent civilians are the main victims. President Bush has ordered a three-ship task force with 2,000 marines and 2,500 sailors to stand by off the coast. The Nigerians are about to lead a West African peacekeeping force into Monrovia. As the war grinds on, talks continue on a political settlement.

History doesn't have to repeat itself in Liberia. In 2001, in neighboring Sierra Leone, for example, rebels assaulted the capital and brought the UN peacekeeping force, composed of soldiers from third-world countries, to the brink of total disintegration. The British sent in 1,000 men, imposed peace and restored order. They then began training a national Army and their presence provided time for a political process that could result in a legitimate government. Today Sierra Leone is well on its way to becoming a peacekeeping success story.

That doesn't seem likely to happen in Liberia. History is repeating itself - and the US is repeating its failure to bring an end to the tragedy. If the marines headed to Liberia ever get ashore, there's not much hope it will be for more than to evacuate foreigners and protect the embassy.

Mr. Bush takes pride in taking tough decisions and in the "moral clarity" of his foreign policy. Yet he has dithered for a month on making a decision about Liberia since suggesting on the eve of his African tour that American troops might become peacekeepers there. And he apparently sees no moral dilemma in turning a deaf ear to Liberia's pleas for help.

The fact is the US doesn't care enough to play the part of policeman and provide a chance for a lasting solution. Instead, the State Department is instructed to patch together the best deal possible. That means accommodating yet again the people who have the guns.

Under the agreement currently being discussed, the rebels will be given the vice presidency and other high government offices. Pursuing political power through the use of violence once again is paying off, and whoever assumes the presidency in Liberia will last only until a bigger thug comes along. In other words, the suffering and the selling out of Liberia goes on and on.

Dennis Jett, who is a former US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, was deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Monrovia from 1989 to 1991. He is author of the book 'Why Peacekeeping Fails.'

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