Crocker: ’’Everybody Except Us Understands that Liberia Is an American Responsibility’’

Crocker: ’’Everybody Except Us Understands that Liberia Is an American Responsibility’’

August 14, 2003 1:34 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Chester A. Crocker, a pre-eminent U.S. expert on Africa and a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, says that the “debate raging within the administration on what to do” in Liberia is occurring against the background of recent U.S. history in Africa. Since the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, he says, “the United States has turned away from African crises. We have used some of our diplomacy, but we haven’t been willing to use any of our muscle; even, in some cases, we have been unwilling to authorize others to use their muscle. It explains the catastrophe that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and the debacle in the Congo since 1996.” U.S. allies, and most Africans, he says, are now looking to the United States for leadership on the Liberia crisis.

More From Our Experts

Crocker, the Reagan administration’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at, on August 12-14, 2003.

More on:


Defense and Security

Other Interviews

Is the situation in Liberia being resolved, with the entry of a contingent of Nigerian soldiers into Monrovia and a three-ship U.S. Marine force offshore?

A start has been made, but Liberia remains quite delicate and fragile. A nominal force of West Africans has landed and given a signal of outside interest and concern from the West Africans, and there is a symbolic U.S. presence. Symbolic, because people know those ships are there and can see the helicopters. They have a sense that Uncle Sam is watching and monitoring. But at the same time, they must also have sensed, at least until August 14, when a 200-man marine combat team went ashore to backstop the Nigerians, that Uncle Sam is a little worried about actually becoming engaged on the ground to help balance the West African presence.

More From Our Experts

That’s one of the arguments for having some Americans on the ground. Until the United Nations [peacekeepers] can get there [in November], the only real outside presence is from Liberia’s African neighbors. And they have an unfortunate history, as a number of West Africans themselves have acknowledged.

What is that history?

More on:


Defense and Security

It’s a history of [peacekeepers from Nigeria, Ghana, and other countries] getting involved in the economy and sometimes going into business with factions [in the nations to which they were deployed]. It’s an unfortunate history, and I don’t think it would happen again. There is more of a spotlight on Liberia, more foreigners are there to observe and witness. And, frankly, the Nigerian leadership of today is very different from the Nigerian leadership of the past, as is Ghana’s. That said, people still look to the United States as the ultimate arbiter and referee.

The second reason for my saying the situation is fragile is that you have the remnants of the government forces, and you have the LURD rebels [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] and the MODEL [Movement for Democracy in Liberia] rebel movement from the direction of Cote d’Ivoire. Everyone is watching everyone else to see if the peace is going to stick. Who is going to cheat? People are wondering if in fact the port is going to be opened up so humanitarian aid can flow. But it is not just the port of Monrovia. The whole country needs to be put in a position of greater stability. Ultimately, a U.N. troop deployment will do this, but the United Nations is not expected until November. What we don’t want to see is a situation in the interim in which people start testing the outsiders and the outsiders are found wanting. That’s one reason why it is so important for the United States to be visibly involved— with choppers supporting Nigerian movements, aerial surveillance, and a small but highly capable rapid reaction element in tangible support of the West African ECOMIL contingent [the military force under the auspices of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States].

Why is the administration reluctant to commit a sizeable presence to Liberia? Is it because it is overstretched in Iraq and elsewhere?

Overstretched is sometimes an argument used. But, in fact, 4,500 [U.S. sailors and marines] are sitting offshore. They are already there. Secondly, if we claim we are overstretched, we will have a major credibility problem worldwide. I’d be much more worried about [nuclear tensions on the] Korean peninsula if people say we are too overstretched to do this little bit of what you might call post-imperial policing in Liberia. [The mission is] to assure stabilization of the country during the transition to a United Nations-led peace operation [that would] help the country’s reconstruction, humanitarian response, and planned political process.

Is the reluctance because the United States doesn’t regard Liberia and Africa as important?

There’s no question that there has been a debate raging within the administration on what to do here. There is also a history we have to acknowledge— the fiasco in 1993 in Mogadishu [in which 18 U.S. servicemen died], where an unwieldy command structure and an inexperienced administration fouled up the intervention in Somalia. Ever since then, the United States has turned away from African crises. We have used some of our diplomacy, but we haven’t been willing to use any of our muscle; even, in some cases, we have been unwilling to authorize others to use their muscle. It explains the catastrophe that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and the debacle in the Congo since 1996.

Is it fair to compare Somalia and Liberia?

I don’t think so. Liberia considers itself the 51st state of the union. Liberians have in many ways looked to the United States as their primary external partner and friend over many, many years. They are very close to us in cultural terms. There are many Liberian-Americans in the United States. This is a place that really wants us there. And there is no tradition of an armed nation, at least there isn’t one yet in Liberia. Somalis have been living by the gun for a long, long time. In Somalia, there was a polarized, factional fight that was somewhat affected by religious extremism, which is not a factor in Liberia. So I don’t think the comparison holds. What we are talking about is a two-to-three month transition before a handoff to a quite substantial U.N. force, modeled on the one in Sierra Leone, for which the British helped create a stable environment.

What do you think of the Bush administration’s policy toward Africa as a whole? Is the Liberian situation an aberration?

The picture I am painting for you is one of Americans averting their gaze from African conflicts for much of the post-Cold War period. Before I would offer a judgment on this administration, I would want to look at what preceded it. The Liberian crisis, for example, began under Bush I [the presidency of George H.W. Bush].

The beginning of the warlordization of the countryside, with Charles Taylor coming across from Cote d’Ivoire with help from Burkina Faso and Libya, began under Bush I. We had a marine task force offshore then, which watched from its ships. I would call them “humanitarian voyeurs.” It was a shameful record back then, but we have done nothing since. I am not talking just about Liberia now. The whole post-Cold War experience has seen us in some respects take our hands off the wheel in certain African crises. I look at what happened in the fall of 1992 in Angola, which was a fiasco of a U.N.-administered but U.S.-brokered peace agreement. I look at Rwanda and the Congo and Zimbabwe.

Are you saying if the Cold War were still on, the United States would have been much more involved in order to keep the Russians out of Africa?

No. What I am saying is that, when this Bush administration came into office, it inherited a legacy of, generally, non-U.S. involvement in African conflict management. The Clinton period witnessed much talk about African conflicts, but very little readiness to back talk with action; it seems the United States frightened itself in Somalia. A notable exception to that was a behind-the-scenes U.S. role [aimed at] trying to get the Congo agreement to work [and end the war in that country]. [Clinton administration U.N. Ambassador Richard] Holbrooke played the lead role in that. He tried to make something out of it. It didn’t really work, but he got it started. And the United States played a role in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, which the OAU [Organization of African Unity] and the United States negotiated an end to; [that peace agreement] is now being implemented by U.N. forces. Those are some exceptions.

So, Bush II and the military look at the Liberian crisis against the backdrop of a whole series of decisions not to get involved, not to put boots on the ground, not to take the risks, or try to explain to the American people what’s at stake. There are some in the administration who have argued publicly that this is a failed state that produced a regional cancer and instability and had some links to people associated with international terrorism and so we should damn well do something about it for humanitarian and strategic reasons. And there are others who say that Africa simply doesn’t matter, that the United States doesn’t have any interests in Africa. That debate has gone on, which is why we have what looked like hyped expectations before [George W.] Bush’s trip to Africa, which began on July 7.

Can you expound on the “Africa does matter” position?

It matters because everybody except us understands that Liberia is an American responsibility. We cannot control the expectations of other people. We have to shape those and influence them over time. But the reality is that our principal allies— and we do still have allies and they do still matter— look to the United States for leadership on Liberia, just as we look to the French for leadership on Cote d’Ivoire or to the British for leadership on Sierra Leone. In addition, we are always asking people to help us in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. Part of the price of admission, if you want to be a credible leader, is that you sometimes have to respond to what other people want.

I do think that all the Africans look to the United States on Liberia. The president just went [to Africa]. They must scratch their heads and say, “Look, if the United States won’t deal with Liberia, what will it deal with?” It also matters for the reason, stated above, that failed states can become dangerous places, wrecking whole regions and developing links with criminal mafias and terrorists.

Has this administration done anything worthy of note in Africa?

The president has taken some interesting initiatives on issues like development assistance, the so-called Millennium Challenge Account [that requires governments receiving aid to fight corruption, fund education and health care, and liberalize the economy]. He has taken some important initiatives in funding in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He and his people have worked to promote private sector reform, market sector reform, and financial liberalization. These are a lot of important issues, but if you don’t get involved in the war and peace equation, all those things go by the boards. Security comes first, especially in a zone of failed and failing states. This is as true in Central Asia and the Middle East as it is in Africa.

We have to understand the priorities. We have to fix the basic structure of the system as it operates in some of the regions, and help the local leaders and institutions fix it. If we don’t, none of our other objectives get accomplished. We don’t get women’s empowerment, we don’t get environmental conservation, we don’t get economic development, or transparency. We have to get the sequence right and understand the importance of the basics, and the basics depend on stability.


Top Stories on CFR


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.