Déjà vu in Port-Au-Prince?

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.

From the very beginning, almost every aspect of the intervention was controversial. The military situation was hardly the stalemate that was portrayed in the ECOMOG mandate: the NPFL controlled nearly all of Liberia's national territory and it was only a matter of time before the Doe regime collapsed entirely. While the first eight months of the civil war had killed some 4,000-5,000 Liberians and displaced an estimated 350,000 others, the fighting had not spilled beyond Liberia's borders and the conflict was not itself a threat to the region. While ECOMOG was purportedly an impartial peacekeeping force, having no ceasefire to police, it quickly became another party to the conflict as it tried to impose the transitional government and assert its authority over the country. Taylor resented the intervention as an ill-disguised move to deprive him of the fruits of his battlefield victory just as it was nearly consummated and impose the "Interim Government of National Unity" (quickly dubbed the "Imported Government of No Use" by ordinary Liberians) chosen at a meeting abroad, as one Liberian intellectual put it, "by a few dozen people who were invited and could afford to attend."

In the end, the ECOMOG intervention created the very situation it was supposed to prevent. While the humanitarian intervention of August 1990 prevented Taylor's takeover of Monrovia-certainly a small blessing for the inhabitants of the beleaguered capital-it also turned what would have been a quick victory for the rebels into a prolonged conflict that continued into the 1997 and concluded with the same end result: Taylor's ascent to the Liberian presidency. During the intervening seven years, it is commonly estimated that some 150,000 individuals lost their lives and more than several million were displaced at one point or another-including most of the populations of Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as significant portions of those of Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. Needing resources to finance the ongoing conflict, Taylor instigated a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone and plundered parts of Guinea.    

As Michael Barnett succinctly observed in his analysis of the moral responsibility for the Rwandan genocide, "peacekeeping was not a value-neutral activity." Rather, humanitarian military interventions, by their very nature, imply political and ethical judgments that the existing institutions within the nation that is the object of the intervention are not only incapable of maintaining domestic security and the rule of law, but that their failure to maintain domestic order threatens the international order.  However, with that judgment comes the responsibility to not undertake a course of action that itself feeds the domestic conflict, increases the security threat, and causes regional insecurity-all of which intervention was meant to remedy in the first place.  In Liberia, the intervention was doomed from the start because the self-described "monitoring group" was sent to oversee a ceasefire that did not, in fact, exist. When ECOMOG came on the scene, Taylor's rebels were on the verge of victory and had little incentive to give any quarter. To impose a cessation in the hostilities, ECOMOG had to engage the NPFL by force, weakening not only its claims to neutrality, but also the domestic legitimacy of the interim government that it propped up as an alternative to the warlord's de facto regime outside the capital. In fact, the regional peacekeepers exacerbated and, ultimately, prolonged the conflict by their dogmatic refusal to "reward" Taylor by dealing with him directly for several years. Consequently, during the Liberian civil war of 1989-1997, by becoming a party to the conflict rather than a disinterested enforcer of an agreed-upon settlement, the West African peacekeepers, regardless of any good intentions, ended up guilty of all three offenses: intensifying the level of the conflict, thus exacerbating the security threat and leading directly into the spillover of the fighting into neighboring countries.    

Hence the political and ethical burdens rest with those who advocate humanitarian interventions in situations like the present Haitian crisis to ensure that the proposed internationalization of the conflict does not itself create a set of circumstances where the result that was supposed to be prevented becomes instead the inevitable, even if unintended, consequence, as it did in Liberia. It should be recalled that peacekeeping only works where there is first a political agreement on the basic conditions for peace and that democratic polities can never be imposed by outside force; the latter must arise from within. And while constitutional order-embodied in the succession to Aristide of the president of the Supreme Court Boniface Alexandre-is important, realism also counsels that the peacekeepers take into account the realities of effective control on the ground and engage rebel leaders like Guy Philippe who, regardless of his provenance, would not have achieved the success he did without the support, active or otherwise, of significant segments of the population.