Liberia: An Uneven Examination of U.S. Policy Toward Liberia

21 May 2004
book review

Lester S. Hyman, United States Policy Toward Liberia 1822 To 2003: Unintended Consequences?. Cherry Hill, Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, 2003, 281 pp + Bibliography, Index, Appendix.

In this well-packaged presentation, Hyman joins a number of American observers of the Liberian political scene, especially during major moments in the country's modern history. Raymond Leslie Buell of Harvard sought in his writings to defend Liberia's interests during the crucial negotiations that led to Firestone's installation in the 1920s. Ibrahim Sundiata wrote perhaps the definitive account of the forced labor crisis of the 1930s. And J. Gus Liebenow articulated a "black colonialism" thesis in his path-setting Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege (1968).

But what the author of this volume offers is of a wholly other genre. Hired by warlord, and subsequently, President Charles Taylor for various assignments, one presumes of a legal nature, he was associated with official Liberia for twelve of the fourteen years of civil war. That experience apparently impelled him to take up a cause, though one is left wondering whether the cause was that of the Liberian people, as he claims repeatedly, or a hired attorney's brief in the midst of a fratricidal conflict.

The book's fundamental argument is that inept and unconscionable US policymakers have made decisions regarding Liberia whose consequences were unintended. Three themes that go beyond Liberia in their relevancy for US foreign policy are advanced to explicate the thesis - "making common cause with one evil-doer in order to defeat a greater evil doer"; "the [need for] timely treatment of post-conflict nations"; and "focusing on a country's leader instead of its people". A case study of Liberia in respect of the three themes becomes the preferred means of demonstrating that US/Liberia relations, at least in recent times, is a microcosm of US relations with the developing world. It is the obvious negatives of this relationship that has produced not only "unintended consequences", but prolonged civil war and destruction of Liberia

In twelve uneven chapters, he proceeds to elucidate his thesis. Chapter one draws upon selected secondary sources to provide historical background, while the second chapter offers a panoramic view of twentieth century official Liberia. A clearly partisan tone is discernable in the latter, when, for example, he seeks to explain the embezzlement charges against Taylor leveled by President Samuel Doe. There is some light shed on the shadowy role of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark in defense of Taylor. And then Hyman begins his own pattern of defense of Taylor which is sustained in the rest of the text. He enmeshes himself in interim Liberian and West African regional politics , stoutly defending the NPFL position (p.33).

A prolonging of the civil war's first phase of 1989-96 in chapter three continues the apology. To US Ambassador Madeleine Albright he attributes an "unwanted chastisement" of the Liberian interim leadership to which Taylor's forceful retort apparently sealed his fate in reference to American opposition to his person.

A major revelation of the book is a CIA Field Intelligence Report of September 1996 with its unflattering comments on major Liberian politicians, including Taylor. It alludes to an "operation" of destabilization should any of the candidates win the then pending presidential elections. This is presented as evidence of official Washington's opposition to Taylor because of the latter's ouster of "their boy", Samuel Doe (p 48).

Chapter four is a lamentation of courtesies and opportunities purposely denied Taylor but offered previous Liberian presidents. Hyman writes: "Not only did President Clinton decline to meet personally with one of the few democratically elected leaders in Africa, but when, later the same year ... Secretary of State Madeleine Albright toured African countries, she refused to meet with the elected Liberian president." (P 53). He then adds the case of US unwillingness to help train the country's security forces because Taylor would not fire his notorious Police Chief Joe Tate "who was doing a good job holding down crime in the country" (p.61). And then there was the case of another US obstruction, this one of an arms embargoed Taylor's efforts at surreptitiously acquiring from the US an armored Hummer automobile - "Even the minor matter of an automobile to protect the life of the president of Liberia was a contentious issue" (p 71).

The fifth chapter recounts the 1998 hostilities in and near the US Embassy in Monrovia involving government forces and armed opponents, while chapter six discusses West African regional relations and international sanctions against the Taylor regime. The apology continues as the author cites remarks by perennial politician Bacchus Matthews that "people are starving because of sanctions", as he does Taylor crony, Senator Grace Minor.

Chapter seven focuses the LURD incursion that began in 1999, but is more concerned about American "containment" of Taylor _- "...the U.S. in cold war fashion, used the Lurd and Model rebel groups in its policy to contain Charles Taylor" (p 177). But very little sustained analysis of this admittedly American national interest-based policy follows. Natural resources are addressed in the next chapter - diamonds and the RUF connections (which subsequently led to Taylor's indictment in 2003 by the international War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone). Again, an apologist's tone in a rendition of conflicting perceptions: "If Taylor lied, why did not the U.S. refute his denials"? (p139).

Chapter 9 continues the work of the defense counsel as human rights, the press, women, and social issues are discussed. "Compared to many other nations around the world", Hyman writes, "Liberia's human rights record was not the worst" (p 148). And, in reference to the widely known excesses of the security forces including notably the April 2002 brutalization of Human Rights Lawyer Tiawon Gongloe, or the attacks two months later on journalist Hassan Bility, the author considers: "The compelling question that remained was: did the Taylor government order, or know about, these incidents on the part of the Liberian security force members"?(p 149)

Chapters ten and eleven bring the story to a close with comments on US/Liberia relations in the post 9/11 world, and the projection in 2002 of national elections in 2003. The latter is replete with anticipation of a Taylor "plan to win",.that is, before the dramatic events in the summer of 2003 of the indictment, and the pressured resignation and exile.

The concluding chapter suggests a basis for assessment of US/Liberia relations. This reviewer would have used the ideas discussed here at the very outset of the study to in fact provide a clearer framework for understanding the relationship. Crucial subheadings are "US Policymakers", "US National Interest", "a word about Africa",. A framework anchored in the politics of legitimacy and integrity (orthodox rather than warlord politics), in an appreciation of the shifts in the international systems may have all led Hyman to ask other sets of questions and suggest other kinds of responses.

Obstructing US policymakers, at least at crucial moments since the 1989 origin of Taylor's insurgency, may have been in harmony with the preference of most Liberians in an intrinsic distrust of the "strongest warlord". Reed Kramer captured well the national interest consideration in the relationship when he characterized Liberia as being a "Casualty of the Cold War". Liberia imploded precisely at the moment the U.S. was readjusting its foreign policy thinking with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having concluded failure in its policy toward Doe's Liberia, a policy that had perhaps emboldened Doe to embark on militarization of the country, the U.S. may have been holding off sustained support for any faction, warring or political, in a situation of civil war. And Taylor's consistent unorthodox behavior, in Liberia as in the West African subregion, did not inspire confidence. I am not by this seeking to defend U.S. policy over the past 14 years, but rather to attempt an understanding of the possible motives for that policy.

The author's "unintended consequences" thesis may not hold in all instances cited, never mind the inept policymakers presumed. It is not clear-cut that official Washington regretted the replacement in 1980 of President William Tolbert with President Samuel Doe, and so the consequences of the 1980 coup may not have been unintended. More than this, no policymaker can anticipate all policy outcomes. What is often done is policy adjustment in the context of perceived national interest. Nor is it clear that allowing Taylor entry into Monrovia in the early 1990s "and the right to become president after he had secured 95% of the country" (p 212) would have avoided the "seven years of devastating civil war". Taylor's leadership ethos as demonstrated repeatedly both during the NPFL years as well as his presidential term might be the more relevant factor.

Finally, questions must be raised about the assumptions of U.S. and UN policymakers regarding non-support for Liberia's integrated rehabilitation and reconstruction during the Taylor presidency, and UN imposition and re-imposition of sanctions against the regime. It does not necessarily follow that with US financial support and the absence of UN sanctions Liberians would have been better off in the past six years. Murderous autocratic leaders with ample resource (Iraq's Saddam Hussein, or even Samuel Doe with $500 million from the U.S.) leave their people in no better condition than resource-starved autocrats.

The book's title is a misnomer since the study clearly is not a treatment of US/Liberia relations, 1822-2003. Often problematic historical sketches are provided, with a more explicit focus on Charles Taylor and the United States. Or better still, an American attorney's defense of the Charles Taylor saga. As to the stated motive for writing the book - To change America's Liberia policy from "interference followed by indifference to a pro-active stance of cooperation and support for the Liberian citizenry", this ideal statement is at variance with the author's fundamental assumptions, namely that Taylor won in "free and fair" elections, and that had the US supported Taylor the warlord, and as president, this would have translated to a truncated civil war. There is out there a tremendous body of literature to refute these assumptions. This, then, is not a work of scholarship but essentially of advocacy.

D. Elwood Dunn, a Liberian, is professor of Political Science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

AllAfrica publishes around 500 reports a day from more than 100 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.