Why are we so indifferent to the suffering of Liberians?
This came to mind reading Helene Cooper’s piece today in the Times. It is of little surprise that the Sirleaf government is looking to the U.S. to come to Liberia’s aid during this crisis. Liberian leaders have always looked to their U.S. counterparts to see them through moments of national peril. And the U.S. calculus has always relied on a reading of our (few) national interests in Liberia to guide our actions.
The question of when and how to intervene in Liberia has dogged every U.S. administration for the last quarter century. The first Bush administration faced the unsavory option of intervening in the midst of a chaotic civil war that seemed scarcely connected to any American interests. President Clinton, stung by his inaction in Rwanda, saw Liberia through the lens of Sierra Leone and sought to, as one diplomat put it, “stop the bleeding” there by putting pressure on Charles Taylor. For the second Bush administration, Taylor was a prime candidate for regime change—though, the U.S. adopted a more covert approach to that objective than it had in Iraq. Now for the Obama administration, the question is urgent: does the U.S. have a national interest in stemming the Ebola crisis in Liberia?
One abiding theme is the tolerance for the suffering of the Liberian people. That doesn’t seem to figure strongly into our government’s policy decisions. I offer the photo montage above as a bit of superficial evidence. The first photo was taken outside of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in 2003, where frustrated Liberian citizens stacked their dead as U.S.-by-way-of-Guinean-backed rebels pounded the capital with mortars. The second a photo by John Moore taken last month in West Point, a poor community in Monrovia. These pictures are remarkable for their absence: they appear to offer evidence that no one is doing anything to help the Liberian people. This, of course, is not true. NGOs, the U.S. military, and even Bill Gates have rallied to offer some support, but as President Sirleaf’s plea makes clear it is not enough.
The truth is the U.S. will never intervene in Liberia unless it feels the effort will serve our national interest and that we will be able to extract ourselves from the situation relatively unscathed. I imagine that there could be an intelligent debate on what constitutes a more direct threat to our national security: ISIL or Ebola. But even as combat-weary as our society is, it is politically easier to wage war from above than it is to put American lives on the line in the name of global health. If the Obama administration is indeed underestimating the lethality of Ebola—and de-prioritizing it to other threats—Liberia could be his Rwanda. The significant difference being that what happens in the coming weeks and months won’t only be a stain on our national conscience, but could give new life to a virus that once only lived in the shadows.