Rescuing Ourselves (Redux)

When desperate victims in far distant conflicts plead for U.S. help, can American forces ever be used for anything other than saving Americans?

Sojourners Magazine, Sept/Oct 2003

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”
— Moliere, actor and playwright (1622-1673)

Imagine the euphoria that must have swept through the national football arena in Monrovia, Liberia on June 13th. Tens of thousands of refugees had been crammed into the stadium for days, cowering under a driving rain, seeking sanctuary – again – from 14 years of interminable civil war. Outside the city were rebel forces on three sides, killing civilians indiscriminately. Inside the two things most in evidence were rotting corpses and armed thugs.

But on June 13th, the Pentagon announced that the U.S.S. Kearsarge – complete with attack helicopters and 3000 bristling Marines – was being diverted from its journey home from Iraq to Liberian waters. In Liberia’s time of peril, U.S. forces were on their way to a land with which America had deep historical bonds — founded by freed slaves in 1822, with its capital named after U.S. President James Monroe.

The most recent insurgent effort to topple Liberian president Charles Taylor – regime change from the inside, one might say – has been accompanied by the latest wearying tales of brutal and gruesome crimes. As is so often the case when lawlessness reigns supreme, both government and insurgent forces have engaged in mayhem and murder. “At night we don’t sleep,” said refugee Ciaffa Fahnbulleh. “Fighters go around raping, breaking into people’s homes and looting.” Many of the most macabre atrocities have been perpetrated by enslaved child soldiers, doped up to make them both fierce and fearless. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of one such young warrior … wearing a teddy bear pack on his back.

Imagine, then how quickly the elation in that arena became bitter disappointment when the full meaning of the Pentagon’s announcement became clear. Was the unchallengeable American military coming to bang a few heads together, protect vulnerable refugees, and bring an end to bloodshed and butchery?

Of course not. Our brave American soldiers were deployed for one reason alone – to rescue Americans.

According to the U.S. Navy’s web site, the Kearsarge was being diverted “to aid in the potential evacuation of U.S. citizens.” “The United States,” said Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner, “is committed to providing for the safety of its citizens.” Special operations forces, said the Navy, were helping to conduct “an orderly departure of U.S. citizens” in what they candidly dubbed “Operation Shining Express.” An express out of the path of danger … for us.

You see, there are no American national interests in Liberia. There is no oil. There are no weapons of mass destruction. On the American geostrategic chessboard, Liberia might as well be on the moon.

After the failed coup attempt last September in Ivory Coast (where again “drugged kids,” according to UN envoy Carolyn McAskie, had committed “every kind of atrocity possible”), U.S. forces had similarly made a dramatic helicopter rescue of Americans – and left the Ivorians to their fates. American officials went out of their way to make clear that U.S. troops would not lift a finger to assist the frantic Ivorians. “The U.S. European Command is moving forces to the region to ensure the safety of American citizens,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald Sewell. “This movement was undertaken solely for the purpose of protecting American citizens and property,” President Bush wrote to Congress. “U.S. forces will redeploy as soon as it is determined that this mission is completed.”

Our sins of omission in Liberia and Ivory Coast have been magnified a hundredfold in Congo. Although Afghanistan over the past quarter century might give it a run for its money, Congo today might well be the most wretched place on Earth. In recent months the citizens of Congo have seen their villages burnt to the ground, machete massacres of babies, cannibalism, and a complete absence of government over vast portions of the country. The death toll in the past five years is widely considered to have exceeded 3 million – the greatest bloodletting anywhere since the end of the Second World War.

The good news for Congo is that several nations have contributed troops to a UN peacekeeping force led by France – woefully inadequate and dilatory though it may be. The bad news is that the most powerful nation on Earth refuses to participate.

But what can Washington be expected to do? After all, in 1993 eighteen American soldiers were killed by warlord fighters in Somalia, who proceeded to drag their bodies through the streets of Mogadishu … and into living rooms across the United States.

Not 18,000. Not 1800. 18. But those 18 have essentially stopped any American intervention in any African crisis for nearly a decade now.

This wouldn’t make a bad exercise for an undergraduate ethics seminar. Is there any quantitative point beyond which we might sacrifice the lives of our own to save the lives of others? Would we be willing to suffer 10 American casualties to save 10,000 Liberians? Could we bear to lose 100 or even 1000 American soldiers if — by the kind of decisive action that only we could undertake in the heart of darkness in central Africa – we managed to rescue a million Congolese? How many American lives would it have cost to save most of the 800,000 souls who perished in Rwanda’s orgy of blood in 1994?

“Tell that to the parents of those American soldiers,” might come the reply. But it seems just possible that if our country ever chooses to go down this road, some American mother might say: “I lost my daughter Mercedes this morning. But because of her sacrifice, 1000 African mothers have kept sons and daughters of their own. Have no doubt, my little soldier girl did not die in vain.”

This enduring dilemma for decisionmakers was vividly portrayed in a February 2003 episode of the NBC-TV series The West Wing. President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, becomes increasingly agitated as he receives reports of genocidal violence in the fictional land of “Kundu.” He asks for a “force depletion report.” Pentagon analysts inform him that U.S. troops could quickly stop the massacres, but that American forces would likely suffer as many as 150 casualties in doing so. Meanwhile the death toll in Kundu rises from 5000, to 10,000, to 25,000. “Why does an American life,” he asks an aide,” matter more to me than a Kundunese life?”

One alternative that could free the American president from such predicaments – a proposal repeatedly revived since the founding of the UN itself – is the establishment of a directly recruited UN Rapid Deployment Force (UNRDF). Such a force would exist not to rescue the citizens of any particular state, but to protect the citizens of every state from genocide and crimes against humanity. Its raison d’etre would be to act when mass violence does not happen to engage the interests of any outside power, but does threaten our common human interest in promoting the world rule of law.

And the individuals volunteering for such a force would not just be “serving their country.” They would be serving the whole of the human community. They would be citizens willing to put their lives on the line to protect the innocent – even when their own country has no dog in the fight. A UNRDF would call upon and cultivate people’s global citizenship, their planetary patriotism, their allegiance to humankind. That element alone could lead the idea to capture the imagination of much of the global public – especially internet-linked young people who’ve grown up with “globalization” as part of the fabric of their lives. It would be history’s first army of humanity.

A force authorized and dispatched by the UN obviously possesses greater legitimacy and accountability than when one country makes unilateral judgments about military intervention. A UNRDF could be deployed rapidly to the scene of crimes against humanity. It wouldn’t have to patrol every square inch of a country, but could concentrate on establishing secure corridors and safe areas for refugees fleeing for their lives. If given the mandate to do so, it could also disarm combatants, arrest criminals, secure borders from outside troublemakers, and replace anarchy with some semblance of law and order.

In the weeks following the Kearsarge episode, pressure mounted both inside and outside Liberia for the U.S. to intervene. Angry crowds laid the mangled bodies of children in front of the U.S. embassy. Thousands of Liberians – many missing limbs – demonstrated in Monrovia daily. Britain, France, several West African states, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Washington to do more than save its own. There was a pervasive sense that because of its historic ties to the country, its massive military establishment, and the recent interventions by Britain in Sierra Leone and by France in Ivory Coast and Congo – it was simply Washington’s turn.

As President Bush prepared to depart on his first trip to Africa on July 7th, the White House indicated that it was indeed considering a dispatch of forces into Liberia. But virtually every comment on such a possible deployment focused on what Washington WOULDN’T do. U.S. officials emphasized that such a force would be quite small – perhaps as few as 500-2000 troops. They said they expected the bulk of the soldiers to be supplied by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). They insisted that any deployment would be short – probably no more than 3 or 4 months. “If there is U.S. participation,” said Secretary of State Colin Powell, “we see it as being very limited in duration and scope and really for the purpose of getting ECOWAS in there … to put the blue helmets on and be the peacekeeping force.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Bush Administration emphasized that “where you have insecurity and instability you’re creating an environment in which terrorists can take root quite easily,” in the words of one senior administration official. That, of course, by any definition, qualifies as a vital U.S. interest.

But even still the decision was a long time coming. Most Washington pundits expected that Bush would make a formal announcement before his departure for Africa. But that didn’t happen, and as he flew home from Nigeria late on Saturday night July 12th, he indicated that he still had “not yet decided.” (One of the arguments for creating a UNRDF is that the decision to deploy it would not become a political football dependent upon the will – or whim – of any one country.) As the Bush Administration dithered, the plight of perhaps as many as a million refugees in Monrovia grew bleaker by the hour.

If some kind of U.S. intervention in Liberia occurs – too little and too late though it may be – it should certainly be applauded. But it hardly absolves Washington for its abandonment of the victims of horrific African violence in the past. Nor does it convey anything like an unambiguous commitment for the future.

And a UN Rapid Deployment Force, realistically, will not come to exist anytime soon. That means that American political leaders – this president, the next, and likely the next after that – will face the same stark choice time and time again. When violence erupts in places far distant from American concerns, will the unchallengeable American military ever be dispatched to protect the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and abominations to rival Dante’s Inferno? Or will we usually do nothing more than simply rescue ourselves?

Posted in Ending Genocide