Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 07, 2003
WAR: Liberia, Liberia, You Border On . . .
The debate over purely "humanitarian" military interventions has been restarted again with the rising international (i.e., French) pressure for the U.S. to intervene in the civil war in the West African nation of Liberia, an unusual African country that was founded by the United States in 1821 (gaining independence in 1847) as a home for repatriated slaves (typically, the French view this as our responsibility out of a sense that Africa is still governed by the agreement of partition made by the European powers at Berlin in 1884).
In one sense, the debate is a misnomer, given the longstanding concern that Liberian President Charles Taylor may be giving aid and comfort to (or at least doing business with) Al Qaeda, which would make an intervention that much more urgent.
But let's step back a bit, because before you even get to the moral and strategic issues of "should we go to war," I believe there's a basic and non-negotiable requirement before we send American soldiers into harm's way:
We have to take sides.
It sounds simple enough, but if you think about it, the willingness to take sides and put America's vast resources and prestige behind victory for one side (or, at least, defeat for another side) is not only a pretty good proxy for whether the conflict is important enough to get involved, but it's precisely the organizing principle that's needed to prevent the paralysis of determining proportional responses to inevitable provocations that ultimately did in the American effort to stabilize the situation in Somalia. When you've taken sides, you don't think about an eye for an eye in disputes, and you don't announce "stabilization" as your end; you think about victory. If you haven't identified an enemy, you'll never be able to defeat it; and the mission ultimately, if carried to its logical conclusion, then becomes one of permanent colonial occupation -- or failure.
The reason for this is inherent in the nature of the military and its limitations, and it perfectly explains why Candidate George W. Bush was so hesitant about "nation-building," while as president, Bush has used American forces extensively in nation-building in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines, where clearly defined enemies are in the field. Our military is designed to fight, and its effectiveness declines if it's being asked simply to insert itself as human shields between two warring factions. The situation in Iraq is difficult enough, but at least we went in, and have stayed there, with a clearly defined sense of whose side we're on, and who we're against, and that gives direction to everything we do, as well as greatly increasing the latitude for commanders on the ground to know when they can give orders to fight back, or to head off in pursuit of hostile forces without worrying about overstepping a mandate. The alternative is being walled up behind a barracks waiting for a suicide bomb attack, as at Beirut in 1983.
A corollary: you never put soldiers into a country unless you are willing to live with one of two outcomes:
1. You lose them all.
Now, there may be some situations where it's reasonable to live with the potential for the first outcome; this is an assumption, if unstated, of the decision to use covert operations: if the soldiers you insert get cornered, you will try to get them out, but at a certain point you cut your losses.
This is the real wisdom in the so-called Powell Doctrine, which calls for the use of force only when overwhelming force is applied. The Powell Doctrine, if wisely applied, doesn't mean you go nowhere if you're not willing to start with half a million troops. But it does mean you don't go in without determining that you're willing to go to that kind of force if necessary to win.
These basic rules weren't met in Somalia, but they were met in Kosovo, which is one reason a lot of conservatives found it possible to support that war (I'll admit that at the time I didn't pay close enough attention to the conflict to come to a firm conclusion on the matter).
Although President Bush has issued calls for Taylor to step down, talk of "intervention" has thus far not turned to talk of us making war to remove Taylor's regime from power (possibly in part because we're not too fond of the rebels, either). As a result, this smells like the kind of situation where we'd be walking in blindfolded. I don't want our soldiers, who've risked quite enough lately on more urgent errands, being subjected to this.