Déjà vu in Port-Au-Prince?

The country founded as a refuge for former slaves tottered on the verge of collapse as rebels advanced on the capital, vowing to capture it and overthrow the government of an increasingly isolated despot.

The country founded as a refuge for former slaves tottered on the verge of collapse as rebels advanced on the capital, vowing to capture it and overthrow the government of an increasingly isolated despot. Foreigners fled the country under the protection of U.S. Marines. When the dissidents rejected an international peace plan, voices were raised calling for an immediate international intervention to restore order, claiming that the civil conflict endangered the security of the entire region. The country's beleaguered president all but begged Washington to come to his rescue, citing both the moral obligations of shared history between his country and the United States and the previous American support for his regime. While the international intervention force could not prop up the faltering regime, it fought to establish a transitional government.

The country I just described is not Haiti, where an uprising that began in early 2003 has suddenly burst onto the world's headlines as insurgents who eventually controlled more than half of the country advanced on the capital forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was already once restored to power by American troops (in 1994), to go into exile, but Liberia, the West African country founded in the nineteenth century as a refuge for freed slaves and other African-Americans from the United States. And the year is not 2004, but 1990. But what happened in Liberia more than a decade ago is indeed an eerie parallel to the current situation in Haiti, the former presenting a lesson for the latter that ought to be studied carefully as the international community-including an initially reluctant U.S. and Haiti's former colonial power, France-sends a multinational force to restore order and prepare the way for new elections under a government of national unity.

In August 1990, some eight months after the civil war began in Liberia, the conflict finally came to the attention of the outside world when the forces of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which by then controlled almost all of the country, laid siege to the capital of Monrovia with the aim of toppling President Samuel Doe. Although Doe enjoyed wide popular support when he first came to power in 1980 after toppling the corrupt Americo-Liberian oligarchy and for several years enjoyed generous support from the U.S. for his anti-Soviet and anti-Libyan foreign policy, after a decade in power the former master sergeant had degenerated into a corrupt despot whose demise would be mourned by few of his countrymen (Taylor, a warlord who was indicted last year by a United Nations-sponsored international tribunal for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, would unfortunately prove to be not much of an improvement). The world took notice when Western correspondents reported a primeval, savage conflict with gangs of teenage fighters-including some with young men wearing women's clothing and various bizarre fetishes-laying siege to the capital. Worried about a mass exodus of refugees as well as thousands of foreigners trapped by the fighting, the U.S. government dispatched 2,500 Marines to the Liberian coast. Doe appealed to the U.S. to intervene with the Marine taskforce, even faxing a pitiful plea to then President George H.W. Bush: "I realize that people have said that I have been driven by power, greed or other unhealthy desires…If I have failed in regards at times, I ask for forgiveness…We implore you to come help your stepchildren who are in danger of losing their lives and their freedom."

Ultimately, Washington chose not to intervene directly: Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait on August 2 more than distracted the first Bush administration and the Marine task force was deployed only to evacuate Americans and other Western nationals. However, the U.S. did give its blessing (and financial and political backing) to an intervention under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The regional body argued that the fighting had reached a stalemate with no one side winning and anarchy set to continue indefinitely. Citing concerns over foreign citizens caught up in the Liberian conflict, worries about the humanitarian situation faced by the Liberian people, fears about the flow of refugees, and the desire to prevent spill-over of the fighting into neighboring countries, ECOWAS authorized a military force, the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), led by Nigeria. As the name indicated, ECOMOG's mandate was peacekeeping, but since there was no ceasefire to monitor, the military force had to try to mediate one and, when Doe was brutally killed by the insurgents, set up the "Interim Government of National Unity" under the respected American-educated political scholar Amos Sawyer.