Blame it on “Black Hawk Down.”
Since the 1993 downing of an American helicopter in Somalia and images of a dead Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu flooded U.S. households and inspired a movie, the United States has shied away from sending peacekeepers to help end Africa’s deadliest conflicts.
U.S. peacekeepers refused to fight alongside the hundreds of British soldiers who helped restore stability in Sierra Leone. And French troops are now undertaking the lonely task of stopping warring parties in Ivory Coast and Congo from slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians.
Although President Bush said Wednesday that he hadn’t decided the shape of, or even whether to send, a U.S. mission to war-torn Liberia, many analysts said his administration was simply delaying. Former U.S. diplomats and other analysts said they feared that Bush’s indecision would send the wrong message to Africa and the world.
“Are you going to care about people when they’re sitting on top of oil like in Iraq? When they’re from Europe like in the Balkans, but not when they’re black Africans?” asked John Prendergast, a former advisor on African affairs to the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. “If you’re going to travel to Africa and say Africa matters, it’s almost impossible not to go.”
Many, like Prendergast, said sending U.S. peacekeepers to Liberia was an obvious decision. Unlike Iraq, where American troops come under almost daily attacks from people who view them as an occupying force, the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor and rebels opposed to him said they would welcome American peacekeepers on their soil in the hope that their presence would end the violence.
A U.S.-led peacekeeping force would ease the suffering of thousands of Liberians now displaced by the fighting, analysts say. In a diary he is keeping for BBC Online, Tom Quinn, an aid worker with Doctors Without Borders in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, described conditions facing those who have been displaced.
“There are so many spent bullet cartridges on the road that you have the sensation of driving over marbles, and in the northern suburbs the streets are absolutely empty save for wired looking kids with guns, and rotting bodies,” he wrote.
“It’s eerie. Back in the [displaced] camps we’re greeted with the same singing and dancing as always but the people are losing hope. They live in constant fear and at the mercy of armed gangs that sweep through their shelters, stealing what little they have and raping their women.”
Helping innocent victims would boost the United States’ battered image in Africa and the world, analysts said.
“It’s an opportunity to do the right thing at a moderate cost,” said Chester Crocker, the Reagan administration assistant secretary of State for African affairs and now a professor at Georgetown University.
“We’ve ignored Liberia for 13 years,” said Dennis Jett, who was the acting U.S. ambassador to Liberia in 1990 when Taylor’s rebel group and others overthrew the U.S.-backed government of strongman Samuel K. Doe. “If we agree that failed states breed terrorism, insecurity and disease, it’s in our interest to go in there, help to get Mr. Taylor out, and establish order.”
The U.S. has enjoyed a fruitful history in Liberia, which was founded by former American slaves. Firestone, the tire and rubber company, maintained a large operation there. In the late 1980s, the U.S. gave Liberia $500 million in aid and made it a key Cold War base when it feared that communism was gaining a foothold in Africa. That support plummeted with the end of the Cold War.
Since then, Africa’s importance to the United States has diminished considerably.
Crocker and Jett, dean of the International Center at the University of Florida, agreed that the “Black Hawk Down” episode during the Somalia mission continued to determine U.S. policy toward humanitarian missions in Africa.
“We scared ourselves out of our shadows,” said Crocker of the Somalia experience.
The Somalia mission so traumatized U.S. policymakers that in 1994 President Clinton issued a foreign policy order setting stiff guidelines for intervening in conflicts.
That order prevented the United States from sending troops to Rwanda in 1994 to help stop the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists. While the massacres raged in the mountainous central African nation, administration officials were even warned against using the word “genocide,” because it would have forced the U.S. to follow international conventions and act to stop the storm of mass killings.
The United Nations sought approval to use its 2,500-strong peacekeeping force to halt the massacres, but Clinton blocked that, saying the U.N. had to learn “when to say no.”
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem From Hell,” Samantha Power, now a Harvard lecturer, described how Clinton administration officials fretted that they could not afford another Somalia.
The same officials worried that a failed intervention in Rwanda could threaten the president’s reelection.
Clinton traveled to Rwanda in 1998 and apologized for doing nothing to stop what he described as an “unimaginable terror.”
Since the Somalia debacle, the United States has tried to limit its peacekeeping involvement in African conflicts by supporting the African Crisis Response Initiative, a U.S. program that trains African soldiers to act as observers in the tradition of U.N. peacekeeping missions.
But Prendergast, who now heads the African program at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the U.S. program and similar efforts are not meaningful because “just focusing on traditional peacekeeping is not relevant to most of the kinds of missions that need to occur in Africa.” In Congo, for example, where militias allied with various governments have massacred civilians, raped women and enslaved child soldiers, force by international peacekeepers is warranted, Prendergast said.
Jett, author of “Why Peacekeeping Fails,” said the U.S. had a chance to do in Liberia what the British did in neighboring Sierra Leone: disarm militia groups, organize elections and help rebuild the country.
Jett and others agreed that any mission to Liberia would be complex because the country’s civil war has consumed the West African region, including Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
The International Crisis Group, which advocates a peacekeeping mission to Liberia, said in its latest report on the conflict that a peace strategy focusing on Liberia alone will not be enough.
“Violence in West Africa now shifts rapidly from country to country,” the report stated. “The conflicts are complex, multilayered and increasingly personal. Rebel groups ally with neighboring heads of state in symbiotic relationships to pursue wars of revenge and the prevailing logic is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ ”