America - Andrew Stephen explains why Bush fears Liberia

A tale of nation-building - or how a tiny, impoverished West African state became such a threat that

Isn't the world so damned complicated? It all seemed a lot easier for Boy George when he was running for the presidency in 2000. He was against "nation-building", he pronounced firmly in a presidential debate with Al Gore - in other words, sending peacekeeping troops to countries for humanitarian purposes only (using the military "needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious"). And Africa? "While Africa may be important," he said, with a dumbfounded Gore looking on, "it doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see them." So goodbye Africa, goodbye disease, goodbye civil wars: apparently even Nigeria's copious oil supplies were not worth much bother (though Boy George may not have been briefed about there being oil in Nigeria).

Then a tiny nation called Liberia reared its head. True, 250,000 out of a population of 3.3 million had been killed in a vicious civil war in the past decade - 1,000 in the past month alone - but what had that to do with the US? Donald Rumsfeld, after all, had closed down the Pentagon's tiny "peacekeeping" office, dismissing this pesky little nation airily: "The reports out of Liberia tend to come up and go down in terms of urgency or lack of urgency." And that was that.

But a few realisations suddenly dawned on the Bush administration. Liberia was in effect an American colony kept going by US funds until the end of the cold war, when it stopped having any strategic importance on the west coast of Africa and was abruptly dropped by the US. There followed 14 years of chaos, civil war, mass killings and disfigurement as punishment.

Liberia was founded in 1847 by slaves returning from the US. Its currency is the dollar. Its flag is very like the Stars and Stripes. Its US embassy was the first to open in Africa. Even the capital, Monrovia, is named after a US president, James Monroe. Did the US have - wait for it - a moral duty to intervene?

Of course not, was the initial no-nonsense response from the Bush administration. But then several factors began to change its mind. First, pressure from the UN. The administration is now beginning to realise it has to take the UN at least moderately seriously; Kofi Annan said the US intervention "is a sovereign decision for [the US] to take, but all eyes are on them". The US knew that in 1999, Britain had sent 4,500 troops to the aid of its former colony Sierra Leone, another troubled country in West Africa, and successfully quelled uprisings there. Worst of all, France sent its troops to do the same thing in Cote d'Ivoire, with Dominique de Villepin (he of the "simplisme" gibe) saying simply that "France accepts its responsibilities". Would America shirk its clear responsibilities? In the characteristic words of Bush, as he began to turn 180 degrees: "I recognise the United States has got a - has had a, you know, unique history with Liberia."

And the reports out of Monrovia have been getting worse. Liberia's dictator, Charles Taylor, 55 - a product of Bentley College, Massachusetts, who served a prison term in the US for embezzlement before acquiring a taste for fine silk suits and ties - was indicted for war crimes by Sierra Leone and the UN on 4 June, accused of running an international diamond ring and ordering the rape, murder and mutilation of many thousands. His militiamen's habit of cutting off arms, legs and noses spread into other West African countries such as Sierra Leone. He is also accused of recruiting and using child soldiers whose campaign song was: "He killed my Pa, he killed my Ma, I'll vote for him."

Taylor is now holed up in Monrovia, hemmed in by thuggish militias that control much of the rest of the country (the alternatives to Taylor are just as bad as he is). Now a million refugees exist in shanty towns around Monrovia, with little or no food and water, no sanitation, no electricity and no phone system. Cholera is beginning to run rampant. An offer of asylum to Taylor from the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was taken at face value in the US (Boy George said Taylor had to go before the US took any action); but Taylor made his exit conditional on order being restored first, which means (naturally) that he would be back in charge to spread murder and rape across West Africa.

It all put the Bush administration in a quandary: the situation cried out for humanitarian intervention, and only a small contingent of 500-2,000 US soldiers would be needed alongside a putative African contingent of 5,000 troops. It would hardly drain the US of any significant military resources. Nevertheless, it would probably not be received well by a US population that had been cheered by Bush's "no nation-building" promises. Last Monday, an initial group of 13 US military "advisers" finally arrived in Monrovia - to cheers from the starving, desperately poor Liberians. An announcement that more would follow is expected soon by Boy George, possibly even on his five-country safari tour of Africa. (Despite the, er, you know, special US links with Liberia, no visit there was scheduled . . .)

But the neoconservatives and right-wing hangers-on of the Bush administration had to find an excuse. And very slowly in the past few days, the justification has been coming out in dribs and drabs. Did we not know that Taylor and al-Qaeda had done business together in the illicit diamond trade? That, specifically in 2000 and 2001, Taylor had co-operated in money-laundering operations with al-Qaeda? That it is not just in the Horn of Africa that al-Qaeda supposedly operates, but in the neglected west of Africa, too? That armed intervention is needed in poor little Liberia because it is a threat to the stability and well-being of the US?

It took General James L Jones, head of the US European Command, to come out straight and say as much. "As we pursue the global war on terrorism, we're going to have to go where the terrorists are," he explained. "And we're seeing some evidence . . . that more and more of these large, uncontrolled, ungoverned areas are going to be potential havens for that kind of activity." Even Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, can go along with that. Limited military intervention in Liberia magically becomes OK; any mention of al-Qaeda works wonders.

The new awareness of the domino violence in West Africa also awakened new dreams among the neo-cons, ones to which Boy George had not been privy in those presidential debates: imperialist expansion into Africa, and not just because of oil in the Gulf of Guinea (or, as is being discovered, off the whole western coast of Africa). The Pentagon, we now know, wants to "enhance military ties" with countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. It seeks long-term access to bases in Mali and Algeria. And it aims to solidify air-fuelling operations with Senegal and Uganda, two countries on Boy George's itinerary. Sao Tome e PrIncipe and Equatorial Guinea - plus Liberia - would in effect become US colonies. And those oil tankers registered in Liberia might come in handy one day, no?

Thus Liberia has turned from a nightmare for the Bush administration into a dream. The poor little country may have been dismissed as useless by the US after the end of the cold war. And Charles Taylor, an expert practitioner of slime and slipperiness, may have called Bush's bluff so far by apparently agreeing to exile - and not going. But with 230,000 US troops in Iraq and 10,000 in Afghanistan engaged in what looks perilously like nation-building, sending a few hundred soldiers to Liberia would be well worthwhile if they are really hunting down al-Qaeda, wouldn't it?