Rescuing Ourselves

"It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable."

—Molière, actor and playwright (1622-1673)

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

The Pentagon announced that day that the U.S.S. Kearsarge—carrying attack helicopters and 3,000 bristling Marines—was diverted to Liberian waters from its journey home from Iraq. U.S. forces were on their way to a land with which America had deep historical bonds. Liberia was founded by freed slaves in 1822; its capital is named after U.S. President James Monroe.

The most recent effort to topple Liberian president Charles Taylor has come with wearying tales of brutal crimes. As is often the case when lawlessness reigns, 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." Enslaved child soldiers, doped up to make them fearless and fierce, have perpetrated many of the most macabre atrocities. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of one such young warrior; he wore a teddy bear pack on his back.

Imagine, then, how quickly elation in that arena turned to bitter disappointment when the full meaning of the Pentagon's announcement became clear. Was the American military coming to bang a few heads together, protect vulnerable refugees, and bring an end to bloodshed and butchery? No. American soldiers were deployed for one reason—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."

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 in Ivory Coast last September, U.S. forces made a dramatic helicopter rescue of Americans and left Ivorians to their fate. American officials made it clear that U.S. troops wouldn't 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 re-deploy 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 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 considered to have exceeded 3 million—the greatest bloodletting anywhere since the end of the World War II.

The good news for Congo is that several nations have contributed troops to a French-led U.N. peacekeeping force, 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? In 1993, Somali warlord fighters dragged the bodies of 18 American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu and into living rooms across the United States. Not 18,000. Not 1,800. Eighteen. But those 18 have essentially stopped American intervention in any African crisis for nearly a decade.

Is there any quantitative point beyond which we might sacrifice the lives of Americans 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 1,000 American soldiers if we managed to rescue 1 million Congolese? How many American lives would it have cost to save 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 also seems possible that if our country ever chooses to go down this road, some American mother might say: "I lost my daughter this morning. But because of her sacrifice, 1,000 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 decision-makers was vividly portrayed in a February 2003 episode of the 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 doing so. Meanwhile the death toll in Kundu rises to 25,000. "Why does an American life," he asks an aide, "matter more to me than a Kundunese life?" "I don't know," the aide replies, "but it does."

AN ALTERNATIVE that could free an American president from such predicaments—a proposal repeatedly revived since the founding of the United Nations—is the establishment of a U.N. 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.

The individuals volunteering for such a force would not be serving only their countries; 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 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 United Nations 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 inside and outside Liberia for the United States to intervene. Angry crowds laid the mangled bodies of children in front of the U.S. embassy. Thousands of Liberians, many missing limbs, demonstrated daily in Monrovia. Britain, France, several West African states, and U.N. 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 July 7, 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 small—perhaps as few as 500 to 2,000 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 three or four 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 important, 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, qualifies as a vital U.S. interest.

But even still the decision was a long time coming. Most Washington pundits expected Bush would make a formal announcement before his departure for Africa. That didn't happen, and as he returned from Nigeria July 12, 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 refugees in Monrovia grew bleaker by the hour.

U.S. intervention in Liberia, even in such a limited way, should certainly be applauded. But it hardly absolves Washington of its abandonment of victims of horrific African violence in the past. Nor does it convey an unambiguous commitment for the future.

Realistically, a U.N. Rapid Deployment Force will not come into existence 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 distant from American concerns, will the unchallengeable American military ever be dispatched to protect the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and abominations that rival Dante's inferno? Or will we do nothing more than rescue ourselves?

Tad Daley is international policy chair of Southern California Americans for Democratic Action. He has written on the abolition of nuclear weapons, ending genocide, and reinventing the United Nations for the International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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