the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 June 26


Two rebel armies have taken most of Liberia recently, and one of them has held part of the country for years. An attack on the capital Monrovia is underway, after recent failures to negotiate a settlement, owing in part to the ego and faithlessness of the current strongman in Monrovia, Charles Taylor. Jeremy Greenstock, UN ambassador for Britain and therefore a familiar face from the Iraq debate, has just called on the US to send a ‘peacekeeping’ force to Liberia. He believes that the international community would welcome US intervention, and that the US is the appropriate power, since the founders of the Liberian state were from the US. Those founders were a combination of freed slaves, who went to Africa to stay, and white supremacists, who rather hoped they would. Of course, there were already peoples living in what became Liberia, so this amounted to a colonization, with the saving grace being, by some bizarre white notion of civility, that it spared Liberia the far-harsher colonization of the Europeans.

I don’t know if Greenstock was speaking for himself during the debates on Iraq, but if so, he and I agree on that point. And in this case, I agree with him again, that intervention is necessary, and that the United States is a good candidate for the task. If he is right about the international community’s reaction, all I can say is that the international community is even less coherent than I had previously thought. Liberia has a recognized government. It has recognized sovereignty. If the United States went into Liberia, it would have to be for regime change: Liberia’s president is an indicted war criminal, and after Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, possibly even we are not hypocritical enough to leave a war criminal in power. And there is not peace in Liberia to keep, so we are talking about an invasion into hostile territory. Substantially it would be the same as Iraq. But Greenstock probably knows diplomats better than I, and if he says that suddenly the world has decided that an armed regime change by the US to bring some degree of peace and freedom to a state that has neither is a good thing, then perhaps the world has so decided.

If so, how? Are the Europeans so eager to show that they don’t not care about Africans that they will countenance what they would not in Iraq because they did not care about Arabs and Kurds? Or do they think that the collateral killing of African non-combatants is less worrisome than that of Arabs? Or do they have less concern about the US getting its hands on West Africa’s diamonds than they did about Mesopotamia’s oil? Or are they just willing to admit, but not quite, that fighting three Liberian armies at once would be lunchtime duty for the US Marines? Even I cannot follow this convoluted thought process, and I am damned smart.

If the election that put Taylor in power was legitimately free and fair, which I find hard to believe, it was only because, as Freedom House implies, the voters (correctly, no doubt) assumed that if not elected he would just take power by force, and at least if elected it would be peaceful. In all other senses, Taylor is a usurper. That is how he originally came to be in power. That is how he remains so. He is, to use the term of choice, a warlord. In fact, he is a prolific producer of war. He makes more than he can peddle in Liberia, so he has created a market for it abroad. He has helped sustain war in the West African region that includes Guinea-Conakry, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Côte d’Ivoire. Most specifically, he has fostered the Revolutionary United Front, and its leader Foday Sankoh, who terrorized Sierra Leone by, as even casual observers of Africa know, hacking off the hands, feet, and noses of anyone, combatant or not, adult or child, who dared oppose them or even lived in the wrong place.

Taylor was indicted by the international tribunal in Sierra Leone. At about the same time, the tribunal announced that Sankoh was ill and possibly would be unable to stand further trial. When I heard that Foday Sankoh was ailing, my reactions were limited to two: first, that I deeply regretted that he would probably be excused from further trial, and second, that I hoped he would nonetheless live a long time, and that his ailments would be excruciating. I am hard of heart, perhaps, but it is hard to be otherwise when considering the person for whose aggrandizement and by whose command huge numbers were killed and deliberately maimed. The images of his victims many have seen and been traumatized by, and if that vicarious trauma was the hundredth part of the original, it was suffering enough. Consequently, I cannot imagine how there is a scenario in which Sankoh can suffer enough for what he has done. I don’t believe in genuine retributivism, and so I would not want society to execute or torture or in any other way cause physical duress to Sankoh. Nor do I believe in hell. I am left, then, to imagine karma lite, in which every once in a long while one of the world’s monsters actually learns by chance the true nature of the misery that he has inflicted on others. It is a false hope, of course.

In West Africa, there are ten legitimately-elected presidents: Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria, Mamadou Tandja in Niger, Amadou Toumani Toure in Mali, Mathieu Kerekou in Benin, John Kufuor in Ghana, Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in Sierra Leone, Kumba Yala in Guinea-Bissau, Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal, and Pedro de Verona Rodrigues Pires in Cabo Verde. Relatively speaking, this is astonishing. On the surface, it looks as if democracy is actually happening. On closer examination, though, there is less to get excited about. Obasanjo was apparently reelected by a majority, but just to be sure his government padded the numbers with transparent fraud. Tandja previously overthrew an earlier democracy in Niger. Kerekou is also a former coup leader; he and his rival Nicephore Soglo have been trading office, and in the latest election Soglo charged fraud (probably true) and withdrew, leaving Kerekou in a runoff with an opponent who endorsed him. Gbagbo was the only serious candidate permitted to stand in the last election against then-dictator Robert Guei, who stole the election and was then forced from power; but afterwards, Ggagbo refused to hold a genuine election, fearing a loss to Alassane Ouattara, the popular leader from the Muslim north. Yala has begun behaving as an autocrat, thwarting the parliamentary process, and has even decided to move his state’s capital (a common West African folly). And Pires is another participant in a two-person rivalry, and prime minister of the former one-party state.

Gbagbo, a longtime opposition leader to his state’s strongman tradition, was, like many such persons, over-eager to have the job. By refusing to hold a real contest with Ouattara, he turned the cultural and religious division of Côte d’Ivoire into a functional political division. An insurrection divided the state into two major parts, north and south, with a smaller fraction in Guei’s western homeland. Efforts have been made to reintegrate, but for now the two camps remain armed and divided, and mutually suspicious.

This is not unlike the current standoff in the Congo basin, where two states by that name are recognized and four actually exist. The Congolese insurgent war is for some reason getting a lot of press in recent weeks, relatively speaking. But the press is mostly limited to European Union intervention and the single number three million. That is the number of estimated deaths since the beginning, in 1998, of the war to oust dictator Laurent Kabila. He himself had only just come to power, by ousting long-reigning dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Again, the rebellion began in the east, again with the help of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, and again it made spectacular territorial gains. But in this case, it only nearly captured Kinshasa ― not quite. And, to great rhetorical flourish (“Africa’s First World War”), a number of southern African states piled in on Kabila’s side. Those armies on both sides are mostly gone, as is Kabila himself, assassinated and replaced by son Joseph. There is talk of a peace deal, a power-sharing agreement, territorial reintegration, rebel troops brought into a reconstituted national army, et alia ad nauseam. No, it isn’t that I don’t care; it is that I don’t believe. I can only be led down the path so many times.

The Europeans are in the northeast of what is being called ‘the Democratic Republic of Congo’ (of which only ‘the’ seems to be accurate) because of interethnic fighting, which so concerned the UN that it had even asked Uganda to stay and police the area, despite the tremendous effort it took to get Uganda to agree to leave in the first place. If the Europeans’ presence is for once selfless, it is difficult to isolate just one past deed for which they might be doing penance. Perhaps US intervention in Liberia is expected as a form of penance; and we too have much to atone for. Perhaps our intervention is expected as a test of our rhetoric. Maybe the world really wants to believe that the US has good intentions, and it has chosen a task that would prove so, because we presumably have no ulterior motive at work in West Africa.

And we could do it, no question. We could do it even without the proffered assumption by NATO of duties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Taylor can barely deal with the rebels, they can barely deal with him, and the US military is held in awe anyway, meaning that we would probably see little resistance. Iraq and Somalia have proven that we are fully vulnerable to guerrilla attacks, but the invasion itself seems unlikely to be a problem.

For many reasons, it is also unlikely to be a reality. West Africa, specifically ECOWAS, has its own native capacity for intervention and peacekeeping. The United States is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with Saddam and Osama both at liberty we will be reluctant to take help from any ally however competent. Only the United States can deal with North Korea for a number of reasons, and for a number of reasons the rest of the world agrees on that point. And we already carry too much of the world’s defense burden, et alia ad nauseam.

The real reason Africa is of so little concern to the United States is that it just isn’t important enough. Racism may have kept Africa down, but racial enlightenment will not raise it up, not in the eyes of the hyperpuissance. We do not think in human terms, of lives, peoples, cultures. Africa has plenty of those. We think on the epic scale of history and global power. We are so much more powerful economically, militarily, and culturally than the other states that we simply cannot think as they do. We speak the world’s language, make its entertainment, issue its currency. We guide the world’s economy and physically defend its main trading powers. We protect the world’s seas. We fight the world’s most powerful forces. We thrust our own concerns on the rest of the world. Anything less than global is beneath us. Africa is beneath us. If it disappeared we would not notice. It has little we want and nothing we fear.

But the answer provides itself. There is a gaping hole in the middle of the planet. An entire continent, hundreds of millions of people, the birthplace of humanity, lies disregarded. Our ancestral home is a land of war, poverty, disease, and tyranny ― and it hardly matters. Centuries of brutality, exploitation, and finally neglect have created a problem of global scale. Its very unimportance makes it important. To rectify this neglect ― to make Africa matter ― is an epic challenge.

Africa is intractable. The United States is invincible. We were made for each other.


Original version


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