Until a few years ago, Liberia was not the sort of place a US secretary of State would generally visit. Riven by a brutal civil war from the late 1990s until 2003, that killed nearly 250,000 and maimed countless others, Liberia was the poster child of senseless conflicts.
But protected by a United Nations protection force, and led by a woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, since 2006 elections, Liberia has begun a healing process that makes it a cause for celebration, if not exactly a model for resolving other African conflicts.
There are plenty of African countries that have more resources than Liberia, larger populations, more strategic positions close to oil routes, and the like. But the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Liberia today is meant to illustrate that America puts as much importance on good governance as it does on pure natural resources.
Highlighting the fact that President Sirleaf is a woman is "very important," and Mrs. Clinton's visit to Liberia "has symbolism," says Richard Moncrief, head of the Dakar, Senegal, office of the International Crisis Group.
Sirleaf's experience at the World Bank and in private banking gives her a leg up in handling a country that is still pulling itself out of war debt, but Mr. Moncrief says it is her personal qualities of honesty that set Sirleaf apart from other African leaders.
"She's a decent person who wants to do the country some good," he says, "when previous leaders left the country in complete ruins."
A cold-war ally
While in Liberia, Mrs. Clinton is likely to focus on Liberia's recovery from civil war, and its strides toward good governance and democracy building. While military ties are not necessarily on the agenda, Mrs. Clinton will almost certainly also discuss America's continuing military relationship with Liberia.
America's ties to Liberia, of course, go back to the 1840s, when freed slaves from the United States came to carve a new nation-state out of the West African coast. A powerful minority of Liberia's ruling elite comes from this lineage of American slaves, and some – including members of Sirleaf's cabinet members – have family ties within the US and maintain US passports.
Throughout the cold war, Liberia was a trusted US ally surrounded by nations that embraced the socialist vision of the Soviet Union, and even today, many African leaders regard the US and its proposed military ties with African nations – under the new African Command, or Africom – with great suspicion. Sirleaf is the great exception.
"[We] all must acknowledge that security and development are inextricably linked," Sirleaf wrote in a July 2007 opinion column. "There is no greater engine for development than a secure nation, and no better way build a secure nation than through building professional militaries and security forces that are responsible to civilian authorities who safeguard the rule of law and human rights."
"Liberians can only hope that the United States will use Africom to raise standards for engagement and help change "the way of doing business" in Africa," she added. "Africom is undeniably about the projection of American interests – but this does not mean that it is to the exclusion of African ones."
Faced with thundering opposition throughout the continent, the Pentagon abandoned plans of setting up permanent bases in Africa. It augmented its current temporary base at France's Camp Lemonier in Djibouti; Liberia's neighbors – notably Nigeria – indicated that they would not welcome an American military base in the neighborhood.
Emira Woods, a Liberian-American and codirector of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, says that an American base in Liberia would be damaging to Liberian democracy.
"Basing Africom in Liberia will put Liberians at risk now and into the future," she wrote in a report. "Liberia's national threat level will dramatically increase as the country becomes a target of those interested in attacking US assets. This will severely jeopardize Liberia's national security interests while creating new problems for the country's fragile peace and its nascent democracy."
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