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29 September 2003

Former Diplomat Says U.S. Has Historical Responsibility For Liberia

David Shinn makes case for involvement

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The United States has a special responsibility to help solve the problems of Liberia, the troubled West African nation long connected to it through history and culture, says a retired U.S. ambassador who spent much of his 30-year diplomatic career in Africa.

"Of all the Western countries, the U.S. is the only one that has a long historical link" to Liberia and, "therefore, some responsibility for bringing the crisis to an end," says David Shinn, former U.S. envoy to Burkino Faso and Ethiopia who now teaches at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs.

Shinn commented on the ongoing civil conflict in Liberia during a discussion at the Elliot School sponsored by the United Nations Association and the Business Council for the United Nations September 25.

A case can be made for "humanitarian military intervention" in Liberia, the diplomat told his audience; especially since "Liberia is the only country of 53 in Africa for which the U.S. has any long term historical responsibility."

Shinn stressed that Liberia was "first and foremost" an American as well as an African responsibility because "one of the reasons for instability in Liberia today stems from the fact that the ancestors of former slaves from the U.S. traditionally held a disproportionate amount of power vis-à-vis those Liberians whose ancestors never left Africa."

In contrast, he said, "There is no long term historical reason why the U.S. should play the leading role in ending conflicts in countries like the Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone or Cote d'Ivoire" even if some would like the United States to intervene there on humanitarian grounds.

Last month, the United States deployed over 150 Marines to Liberia in conjunction with a vanguard unit of 1,500 African troops sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The American force was withdrawn after Liberian President Charles Taylor left the country and a peace agreement was signed between the warring parties in Accra. That made it possible for much-needed relief supplies to be brought to Monrovia where fighting had reduced the population to near-famine conditions.

But conflict still smolders in the countryside and some observers believe the ECOWAS force would be stiffened and move quicker to impose peace outside Monrovia if the U.S. military were present to back them up. Shinn made such a case pointing to a number of examples where Western military interventions helped stopped killing and furthered relief efforts in Africa.

"The French did so in Cote d'Ivoire and even took on a small military role in the Congo where they were not the colonial powers," the diplomat explained. Also, "the United Kingdom belatedly but appropriately stepped up to the plate in Sierra Leone."

The diplomat hinted at some hypocrisy when he reminded his audience, "Throughout the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, the United States used the argument that the United Kingdom, as the former colonial power, should play a key role."

A sustained direct U.S. military intervention in Liberia would not be a first for Africa, Shinn said, pointing to the first Bush Administration, which "took the military lead in Somalia in 1992" to provide security for the delivery of food to famine-stricken areas despite the fact that "the U.S. had no historical connection with that country."

Shinn said, "To its credit, the U.S. has provided significant quantities of humanitarian assistance -- more than $31 million in fiscal year 2003 -- and some development aid to Liberia. It has not, however, contributed in any meaningful way to ending the military conflict."

The diplomat reminded his audience, "Liberia since 1989 has been a West African regional problem. Until there is a return to stability and the rule of law in Liberia, there will not likely be permanent peace in Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone -- all of which face serious problems and are today severely stressed."

While ECOWAS forces "should properly be expected to provide the bulk of the force in Liberia," the diplomat emphasized, "There is a role for American logistic, intelligence and perhaps even quick reaction forces on the ground in the country."

Turning to a prime cause of the turmoil in Liberia, Shinn said, "A short term problem is Charles Taylor. Although he left Liberia for Nigeria, by numerous accounts he continues to stir up trouble by cell phone. It is time to put him under house arrest without access to visitors and communications equipment and to surround him with guards...who are not likely to be bought."

Shinn concluded: "There are already enough running sores around the world that are not in the interest of anyone except malcontents who thrive in failed states. This situation in West Africa deserves more attention. A solution would be in the long term interest of the U.S."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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