Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Intervene in Liberia?


Many people in Liberia are begging us to intervene to stop their horrible civil war--by unspecified means. Even President-by-intimidation Taylor is asking for help. Liberia's neighbors would also undoubtedly love to see us clean up this infectious hell-hole. UN leaders are asking for a peacekeeping force as well.

Do we have any duty to Liberians? If we have no duty to interfere, is it advisable on other grounds? Do we have any right to interfere? If we did interfere, what should we do?

The formal answer to the first question has to be no. The first duty of our government is to our own people, and secondarily to those with whom we have agreements of alliance. Liberians fall into neither category. But the formal answer isn't the whole story, of course. Most Americans know nothing of Liberia and its history with the US; but it has been a friendly and cooperative partner, albeit a rather corrupt one, for its whole history. From allowing air bases during WWII to siting a huge VOA station during the Cold War it has worked as a minor military partner--not an ally, true; but a cooperative partner.

Arguments that we have a duty to help Liberians don't seem overwhelming, but they're not negligible either. It might be a hard sell to Americans who don't know much about our mutual history, but could be successfully argued.

Unfortunately Liberia's troubles make that whole section of West Africa unstable and ungovernable; and we know what happens when a section of the world becomes ungovernable--especially a section of the world with a lot of Muslems in it. Contrary to statements I've seen elsewhere, Liberia does have a substantial Muslem population, and the Ivory Coast is becoming polarized a la Nigeria. Humanitarian issues aside, we have a strategic interest in making sure the region doesn't contain lawless pits where our terrorist enemies can form enclaves.

Quite a number of unrelated groups outside Liberia are also asking us to intervene on humanitarian ground, intimating that we can get back in their good graces by doing so. However, since these same people (Kofi et al) will wail about "imperialism" after the first Liberian casualty, we can safely discount any implied goodwill.

The question of a right to interfere is a rather vexed question with a counter intuitive answer.

When a nation's survival is at stake (no matter what philosophers and theologians say), we accept it as given that that nation has the right to attack its active enemies, and even enemies that are not currently threatening them if this makes strategic sense. We invaded Iraq on these grounds, though the proximate cause was Iraq's non-compliance with disarmament rules made to enforce the peace agreements. We invaded France as a step toward rolling up the Nazi empire, though France was not a grave threat to us.

Life is more clear-cut when you limit wars to self-interest. Mugabe is a despicable villain who uses starvation as a political tool, but he does not threaten American interests, and so he knows he is safe from US attack. But if we allow "humanitarian reasons" as a trigger for war, he cannot think himself safe at all. You may think "Wonderful! The creep ought to worry." But think instead what an amazingly wide scope "humanitarian reasons" covers. Mugabe starves only a small fraction of Zimbabwe's population. You can trivially find terrible abuses in South Africa, or Libya, or Morocco, or France, or any prison anywhere in the world. Suppose a group of Gypsies in Hungary beg for relief from the abuse of their human rights from anybody willing to invade Hungary. Do you need a threshold for action that says people's lives have to be in danger? Here in the US we have a population that the EU considers oppressed, and whose lives are at stake: death row inmates. Nobody is safe, anybody is a target.

You can't safely rely on appeals for outside intervention, either: who do you listen to, and who do you trust? You can find a Quisling in any country, to say that they need the German army to come restore order. Don't complaint about the grammar in that sentence, it means what it says.

The cold-blooded rule of self-interest turns out to restrict war more than the more tender-hearted defense of human rights. I have to class "humanitarian reasons" together with "our country's honor" and "our country's destiny" as invitations to unnecessary wars.

And . . . it never hurts to remember that power corrupts. We are not holy angels. Even our intricate systems of accountability don't always work, as the Arthur Anderson and the brokerage scandals recently showed. This time the cries of "No blood for oil" were so much cow dung--the Iraq war worked against the oil industry's interests. Next time it might be an honest indictment. Want to bet who'll be president in 2009? Bush has been an honest man, as far as I can tell. But who comes after him?

I don't see that the words "humanitarian relief" automatically give us the right to do what needs to be done.

What do we want to be done?

For starters, the status quo is abominable. Even if the rebels magically vanished, Liberia under Taylor hardly resembles a country at all. Taylor was elected by a thoroughly intimidated population. In no significant way has he tried to improve the country. I've seen the regular news articles about "The First Lady gave" this or that, but the dollar amounts are small. The Presidential mansion has electricity; nothing else does in Monrovia unless the firm has its own generator. The armies (one hesitates to think of them as a single force) are corrupt and poorly controlled. Taylor seems to have pioneered the use of drugged children as foot-soldiers. Their loyalty is assured by making sure that they participate in atrocities that keep them from ever going home again.

The borders are a joke. The armies are so far from controlling areas they nominally cover that rebel forces regularly bypass them. The war is more a matter of the encounters of wandering bandits than the of Western tradition of armies trying to overrun the land. Checkpoints are where the money is for the ordinary soldier, although he will make do by stealing the cookpots of the poor villagers he terrorizes.

The President is a cannibal kleptocrat who is and has been doing his level best to overthrow all of the region's governments.

Are the rebels any better? It is hard to say. They seem to be somewhat less interested in committing atrocities than Taylor's gangs, but unfortunately that isn't saying much. They are not very communicative.

So, what we want is for the government and rebel gangs to be suppressed, the current regime to go away (to prison or to Hell, whichever), the borders to be sealed to prevent incursions of rebel groups and (more importantly) the excursions of mercenary bands of Liberians into neighboring countries, and political and economic infrastructure to be rebuilt. Nation-building, in short.

Note well though, that peacekeepers cannot do the job. The standard-issue UN peacekeeper stands in the gap between the combatants and doesn't take sides. To solve Liberia's problems the intervening force has to take a side: against essentially all the other armed forces in the country, including what is considered to be the government. By the way, relying on ECOMOG troops (neighboring nation peacekeeping forces) proved to be a bad idea earlier in Liberian history, and also in Sierra Leone. They proved (especially the Nigerians) to be quite adept at theft themselves, and not very interested in nation-building.

Some parts of this are not technically hard. The bulk of the armed forces are ill-equipped and very ill-trained, and would scatter on hearing that Americans forces were planning to shoot back. However good they are at terrorizing unarmed villagers, they are lousy at coordinated and sustained fighting.

An incident from the war of Taylor's victory over Doe: During the battle for Monrovia some of Taylor's fighters wrested control of a street corner in Monrovia from Doe's (American-trained) troops. It being a fairly strategic objective, they were delighted, and went off to celebrate by looting some beer. When they returned, Doe's men had retaken the street corner.

Sealing the border is quite difficult: at a minimum we'd want to bulldoze a wide strip and patrol it to stop all traffic and commerce except at tightly controlled access points. That sounds to me like a couple of soldiers every 200 yards for 3 shifts over the entire border: say about 50 soldiers per mile for over 500 miles, with some reserves here and there to deal with large excursions. I estimate over 25,000 soldiers. (I've never been in the army, and these numbers are just my best guesses.) Don't even think of using Liberian soldiers for this purpose. That is too bitter a joke to be funny--they are the biggest part of the problem.

Chucking out the current government would not be very hard, but it would certainly be problematic. If we went in on invitation and then turned on them, it would set a precedent that would make it pretty much impossible for any country to contemplate asking for our assistance again, or even allowing us to base troops there. Very very bad idea. The Iraq invasion would have been impossible without bases nearby. If Qatar and Kuwait had been unwilling to let us base forces, we'd have had to give up on Iraq, invade somewhere else and install bases by force, or go nuclear. These don't seem good options.

Going in on the understanding that the current government has to go might be doable, if Taylor agrees to go first. Even so, whoever else has a vested interest in keeping in power might object and "change the government's mind," leaving us back with the previous paragraph's problem. We'd have to root out essentially all the old guard, and they won't like it. Diplomats can only do so much--we don't want to give the old guard what they really want, which is continued power.

So, let's pretend we want to intervene. What options do we have?

  • We can toss in some US troops to serve with a UN/ECOMOG peacekeeping force. We'd get a lot of respect and nominal cooperation at first, but if we go in with the usual UN rules of engagement that will evaporate pretty quickly. Liberia is afflicted with many free-lance bandit gangs, loosely associated with warring factions. Unless we have the authority to chase after them when they show up nearby, we're pretty useless.
  • If we go in with the understanding that our soldiers get to patrol wherever they want and shoot anybody who annoys them, the roadblock checkpoints will go away and the refugee problem will start to be solved. However, the same keptocrats that are currently entrenched will still be there, and with somewhat less of an imperative to change. It does not matter much whether Taylor himself is still in the country or not. The people he surrounded himself with are of the same stripe as he.
  • We can do the above, and start importing guns and ammo and training village elders in their use. Of course Taylor's people would go ape, but if we could get around that problem the scheme might actually work. The idea relies on the fact that the bandit groups are not trained, and rely on superior firepower to terrorize and make up for their poor marksmanship. If your bandit group discovers that villages can fight back, they can either try to change tactics or look for easier prey. Bear in mind that an attacked village doesn't have a lot to hope for as it is, so fighting back can't hurt. This scheme takes far too long, though: months at least to supply and train, and many more months for bandits to start getting scared.
  • We can intervene as part of a UN peacekeeping force, and then turn on the government. I've said before I think this a terrible option--probably the worst thing we could do.
  • We can try to get agreement beforehand that Liberia as a government and a country no longer exists. On the basis of our historic ties with the land we are in a better position than Britain, France, or the UN to try to chase out the bandits and rebuild the nation. This would be very scary to a lot of kleptocratic governments out there, but I think we might be able to define non-existence tightly enough to keep focused on the real basket cases. Then we land Marines. Since that can't happen instantly, Taylor et al will have time to escape. And possibly go back to the bush and try for another revolution when we're gone. So somebody needs to take out Taylor too.

See the followup

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