The United States and Liberia: The Question of Moral Responsibility

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 25, 2003

Does the United States of America have a moral responsibility toward Liberia? Some argue no. Some say yes. On both sides, a number of good arguments are made, but the question doesn't go away. And now is a ripe time to revisit this sensitive question.

For a long time now, the citizens and residents of this oldest African republic have known no peace. They have been tormented by civil wars, going from dictator to dictator. Just about when everyone reasoned that it couldn't get any worse, it just did. And Liberia, once again stands on the verge of total collapse; from self destruction, that is. And the world waits and watches, unfortunately it seems.

When Samuel K. Doe was apprehended, tortured and killed, many Liberians breathed a sigh of relief. Doe, the dictator had been vanquished and dispatched to oblivion, as many Liberians looked to better days ahead.

Our euphoria was short-lived. Liberia plunged itself into a brutal civil war that defied rational explanation. Brutal warlords masterminded ruthless armies as many citizens were killed and many others became displaced before the war finally ended.

Finally exhausted, Liberians went to the polls and elected Charles Taylor to the presidency. According to conventional thinking, they didn't choose him because he was the most promising democrat - they elected him because they feared him most. They reasoned that not electing him would prolong the search for peace.

Well Taylor became president and matters certainly got worse. He wasn't just satisfied ruling Liberia and pillaging its resources. According to intelligence reports, he tried to destabilize the West African region. He allegedly financed and supported a most ruthless guerilla group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that waged a senseless and brutal war against their fellow nationals of Sierra Leone, chopping off limbs of anyone in their way, including women and children. (Sierra Leone is Liberia's western neighbor).

He was also accused of supporting dissidents trying to topple the government of Guinea, Liberia's neighbor to the north. He was not to succeed as Guinea turned the tables on him by openly supporting and hosting a rebel group bent on toppling Taylor himself – thereby increasing the bloodshed in Liberia.

Fortunately for Sierra Leone, its old colonial master, Great Britain, in collaboration with the United Nations sent troops into Sierra Leone and saved the day. Sierra Leone is well on its way to full recovery and stability.

Failing in Sierra Leone and meeting tough resistance in Guinea, Taylor turned his eyes on the Ivory Coast, Liberia's eastern neighbor. The Ivorian government was temporarily toppled by rebels openly supported by Charles Taylor, once again.

France, the former colonial master of the Ivory Coast, following the example of Great Britain who had come to the assistance of its once colonized nation, moved in to the defense of the Ivorian government. Taylor was handed another defeat.

The lesson learned here is that many ruthless dictators in the third world have the ability to ruin the lives of millions of defenseless peoples unless the ‘civilized' world demonstrates moral leadership, or shall we say compassion? France and Great Britain did just that. They didn't stand by and watch the senseless slaughter of millions – they moved in and defended their former colonies. They did so not out of legal but moral obligation; they simply did the right thing.

Liberia, on the other hand, has never been colonized. But its relationship with America might as well qualify her as a former colony of the Super Power. The country was founded by freed American slaves. An organization named the American Colonization Society (ACS), under the auspices of the U.S. government spearheaded the founding of the new nation. The rationale was to rid America of a huge moral sin: the sin of slavery. The country Liberia remains a physical and living symbol of that great moral sin.

Through thick and thin, the countries have remained linked, culturally, politically and otherwise. Liberia has even earned the dubious nickname of "America's step child".

That is what makes the argument that America has no moral obligation towards Liberia mind boggling. Of course, America does, and to argue otherwise is misleading.

Many US policy makers including former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, and present US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mark Bellamy, have labored to make this argument. I call their thinking misguided and perhaps, cold hearted.

On the other hand, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe have all run editorials calling for American involvement in the Liberian crisis because America has a moral obligation to do so.

Steve Morrison of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC thinks that the US should be as involved in the Liberian crisis as the French and British have been in the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone respectively.

In recent developments, President Charles Taylor has been indicted by the UN-sponsored Special Court in Sierra Leone for his alleged role in the Sierra Leonean civil war. Under intense pressure from rebels as well as relentless demands from the political opposition, he had promised to step aside.

Now, with the indictment hanging over his head and the real possibility of doing time in prison, he has reneged on his promise and has vowed to fight to the last man; he is taking the country down with him, he threatens.

If America stands by and lets Charles Taylor, a despotic and crazed dictator continue to direct the killings of innocent and defenseless Liberians, their blood will remain on America's hands, albeit indirectly. America has a moral obligation to avert such an occurrence.

Former President Bill Clinton, when questioned about America's failure to act quickly in averting massive killings in Rwanda and Burundi said he was not informed quickly enough, in other words, America did not know. What is President Bush's excuse now?

America must act now as Britain and France did. America does have a moral obligation towards Liberia no matter what some misguided policy makers may think. The people of Liberia are counting on America to do the right thing.