Theoretically, Gen. John Abizaid could find himself in Baghdad and Monrovia in the same week. The new head of U.S. Central Command must give orders over hot spots in both Iraq and Liberia, along with 23 other countries in the command in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Troop commitment to the West African civil war is nearly nonexistent compared to troop levels in the Middle East-300 soldiers in Liberia versus a quarter-million in the Iraqi region. But the dispatch of even a few soldiers to police an internal conflict has raised questions about mission validity nonetheless.
"The fact that our soldiers won't be coming home from Iraq on time underscores the reason we shouldn't rush to join the Nigerians and others deploying to Liberia," writes Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jack Spencer. In a recent report he argues that U.S. forces are "stretched almost to the breaking point" with the war on terrorism, operations in Afghanistan, peacekeeping in the Balkans, and looming threats over North Korea. In addition to the hundreds of U.S. soldiers on the ground patrolling a ceasefire agreement ahead of a UN-sponsored army of West African soldiers, there are 2,500 U.S. Marines waiting off the coast of Liberia in three warships.
Despite the criticism, the Bush administration has been arguing for its growing military presence in Africa. Military strategists, too, are paying closer attention than ever. The United States has beefed up a new anti-terror base in Djibouti, a predominantly Muslim nation in the Horn of Africa, poised conveniently at the mouth of the Red Sea and across from Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The Pentagon has kept quiet about long-term plans at the base but has used it as a turnstile for special forces hunting terrorists in the region. With growing evidence of al-Qaeda terror cells in East Africa, along with attacks on Israeli locations in Kenya, clandestine military activity is likely to continue.
But military intervention isn't always the solution to Africa's woes. "A lot of these are low-level criminal conflicts," said retired Army colonel Daniel Henk, who chaired the Department of Defense Africa Center for Strategic Studies. "More African conflicts could be solved by law enforcement rather than military involvement."
Mr. Henk, who now teaches at the U.S. Air War College, said that with better law enforcement nations like Liberia could cut off destabilizing flows of weapons, narcotics, and criminals before those problems escalate into civil war.
To that end, both the State Department and Justice Department-together with the Pentagon-support extensive law-enforcement training exercises across the continent. Two weeks ago Central Command, with the State Department, sponsored a three-day meeting in Ethiopia to discuss security issues with African military and civilian leaders. The meeting, an annual event called Golden Spear, draws about a dozen African nations together with Central Command officers. Perhaps most in need of the training, with a spiraling conflict that provoked international intervention, Liberia failed to send a representative as President Charles Taylor prepared to step down from office.
Many who call for U.S. forces in Liberia cite the country's American roots but ignore its Christian history. Former American slave Lott Carey returned to the area that became Liberia as one of the first black missionaries back to Africa. He started a church and became governor of the new territory. His reason for leaving America: "I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct and respectable my character, I cannot receive due to either," he said. "I wish to get to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion, and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race."
Liberia led the way in Africa as an independent nation, the only uncolonized nation in the midst of European colonies from 1847 to 1980. The country got its start before the U.S. Civil War when the American Colonization Society sent freed slaves back to Africa.
At that time Liberia had a system of representative government, with three branches and a balance of power, and an elected president. Some said the society was just trying to get blacks out of the United States. But the objective was to allow former slaves to have an opportunity to run their own affairs politically and socially in Africa. The original 1847 national documents express noble Christian desires similar to Puritan reasons for leaving Europe to come to America.
"Our churches, for the worship of our Creator, everywhere to be seen, bear testimony to our piety and to our acknowledgment of His Providence," the declaration says. "The Native African bowing down with us before the altar of the living God, declares that from us, feeble as we are, the light of Christianity has gone forth; while upon that curse of curses, the slave trade, a deadly blight has fallen as far as our influence extends." One of Liberia's early presidents, Joseph J. Roberts, saw the new nation as raised up by God for a special purpose of showing Africans the way out of slavery.
Churches and missions played important parts in the early years of the new nation. The Ladies Dorcas Society was started as early as 1843 by the Methodist Church to help the poor. Settlers, as returning freed slaves were called, adopted orphaned native children.
But some accused the settlers of colonizing the new nation and its native Africans just as Europeans did in other parts of the continent. Their biggest challenge was introducing native Africans to the Christian way of life that the settlers brought with them. They were a diverse group even in the 19th century, including former slaves, natives growing up in settler families, and Africans freed from slave-trading ships on the way to the New World.
Yet the settlers and the new nation did not always live up to high ideals of freedom and representative government. Some men became polygamists. Alcohol became a problem, as in the United States, prompting a temperance movement and a debate in the national legislature.
Historian Tom Shick suggests that the impact of the mission work in the 19th century was limited, with less than half of the settler population in 1843 having membership in major churches.
But for all such weaknesses, Liberia was a nation free of colonial rule, in contrast to other African countries controlled by Europeans. Liberia developed a balance of power among three branches of government that made it stand out on the continent. Competing political parties battled each other for the presidency and for seats in Congress. By the 1920s and 1930s, voting rights expanded to include indigenous groups. Intermarriage bridged the gap between settlers and natives.
But opportunity and power-sharing did not flourish fast enough for some. Intense criticism of the government in the 1970s led to a military coup in 1980. Led by Samuel Doe, it had the romanticized overtones of the French Revolution but ultimately only succeeded in setting off one cycle of violence after another.
Mr. Doe and his followers murdered the elected president, William Tolbert, then shot his cabinet on the beach. Some Liberians hailed the revolution as legitimate, but developments since 1980 prove otherwise. Mr. Doe reaped what he sowed, dying at the hands of rebels who launched a civil war against his government in 1989. In the aftermath of helping launch that civil war, Charles Taylor ruled over the country, facing rebellions similar to the one he launched against the Doe government. Years into fighting two main rebel movements, he stepped down from office on Aug. 11 under pressure from the United States and west African nations.
With Mr. Taylor in Nigerian exile, the challenge of Liberia is immense for any peacekeeping troops. Government remnants and rebels took an important step on Aug. 18, signing a peace accord that could end three years of fighting.
"Today is a good day. Today is a happy day. The war is over," rebel leader Sekou Conneh declared, exchanging copies of the deal with his rebel and government counterparts, and embracing them.
Blending once-warring factions into a two-year transitional government is the country's next challenge. A UN tribunal has indicted Mr. Taylor for war crimes, for aiding rebel movements in Sierra Leone, and for sponsoring atrocities that include cross-amputations (cutting off the right hand and left foot) and cannibalism. But a bigger challenge remains: whether the country can recover its original vision of Christian liberty and stability in a way appropriate for the 21st century.
-with reporting by Mindy Belz