Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia: Challenges of Resistance and Compliance

Jeffrey Biller

June 20, 2020

9 MIN READ

Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia: Challenges of Resistance and Compliance
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As a young intelligence officer in 2003, I deployed with the 398th Air Expeditionary Group to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in preparation for a possible noncombatant evacuation of US citizens from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

At the time, Liberia was in the midst of a lengthy civil war. Two separate rebel factions were bearing down on the capitol, and the country’s president, Charles Taylor, had recently been indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone.

I had been warned that the situation in Liberia was complicated, understood only in the context of the myriad factors affecting West Africa in general and Liberia in particular.

In Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia: Challenges of Resistance and Compliance, Niels Hahn provides an in-depth analysis of the factors that shaped Liberia from its founding to the present day and the inextricable part US involvement has played in that history.

While establishing a homeland for freed slaves in the United States was a motivation, fear of slave revolts, concern for the growing dependency on slave labor, and colonial ambitions also were important factors.

Utilizing a wealth of primary sources, particularly personal interviews, as well as established historical reviews, Hahn proceeds chronologically through Liberia’s history from the early nineteenth century to the twenty-first century.

As Hahn rightly points out in the first chapter, the motivations involved in Liberia’s founding were more complex than popularly conceived.

While establishing a homeland for freed slaves in the United States was a motivation, fear of slave revolts, concern for the growing dependency on slave labor, and colonial ambitions also were important factors.

This exploration of Liberia’s founding was also significant in that it marked the beginning of long-term US military involvement in West Africa.

Military involvement was necessary not only to secure the land from the local population but also because of Liberia’s strategic location and the access to a deep-water port in West Africa.

Military involvement becomes a theme of the book, as Hahn sets out to establish that US military, as well as intelligence agency, involvement was, and continues to be, a primary influence shaping the Liberian state.

This tie was furthered during World War II and the Cold War, as the US government invested heavily in Liberia for strategic purposes, including the development of sea and air ports, a powerful Voice of America transmitter, the OMEGA navigation system, and a large CIA contingent.

Another key factor in US involvement in Liberia at the time was the great-power rivalry among Great Britain, France, and the United States.

Regional involvement by these states, with the eventual inclusion of China and the Soviet Union, is another theme that runs through the narrative.

Chapters 2 and 3 see the introduction of additional major factors in Liberia’s development: economic involvement by foreign companies and the related early growth of the Pan-African and socialist movements.

Firestone was the first major Western company to enter into Liberia for the purpose of developing rubber plantations, although other companies would eventually enter as well.

The massive scale of the rubber plantations required huge amounts of labor. The resulting system of forced labor was seen by many in Africa as something akin to slavery.

The inequalities inherent in this system caused many Liberians to look for answers in the nascent Pan-African movement as well as early communist movements.

Ethnic rivalries and an unstable government led to the suspension of the 1846 Liberian Constitution, and in 1984 a new document was drafted and approved.

However, Liberia’s ruling class benefited greatly from the involvement of US companies, which led to a largely pro-US stance by government leaders.

This tie was furthered during World War II and the Cold War, as the US government invested heavily in Liberia for strategic purposes, including the development of sea and air ports, a powerful Voice of America transmitter, the OMEGA navigation system, and a large CIA contingent.

One of Hahn’s strengths throughout the book is his ability to weave together these competing factors to explain political developments and US involvement in Liberia.

Hahn also mixes in interesting anecdotes, such as the story behind the Liberian president’s traditional “swearing-in” suit, the result of a rapid ceremony given fears of an imminent coup.

Chapters 4 and 5 chart the end of the first Liberian Republic and rise of the second following the 1980 assassination of Pres. William Tolbert.

Ethnic rivalries and an unstable government led to the suspension of the 1846 Liberian Constitution, and in 1984 a new document was drafted and approved.

An election followed the approval of the new constitution, placing Samuel Doe in the presidency. However, a failed coup against President Doe led to the exile of many popular leaders and germinated the seeds of rebel movements that would plague Liberia from that time forward.

Doe’s would also chart the beginning of a deteriorating relationship between the United States and Liberia. Doe began to approach socialist countries for development aid and investment, causing a rift with the United States.

This prompted Washington to explore options of placing other individuals in power, including the eventual Pres. Charles Taylor.

The growing power and influence of rebel groups, 1990 assassination of President Doe, rise and fall of Taylor (indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone), and widespread instability in West Africa would all lead to the continued military involvement of the United States and the United Nations in Liberia, covered in the final chapter.

Chapter 6, the book’s final chapter, is Hahn’s strongest, as he brings together all the book’s themes to analyze the Liberian Civil War, the UN Mission in Liberia, and US involvement in resolving the conflict.

He charts the dizzying array of internal factions, international organizations, foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations, and others who would play a role in shaping the conflict and its resolution. Hahn also neatly explains how all this led to the growing Chinese influence over Liberian affairs.

If there is one criticism, it is that the account of US military activities in Liberia is underdeveloped. Although not vital to the overall analysis, Hahn proposes in his introduction that his book “demonstrates how US military power has been the primary influence shaping the Liberian state.”

Hahn notes how the long-term involvement by the United States in Liberia resulted in Washington being viewed as neocolonial, attempting to dictate outcomes as opposed to supporting a struggling country.

Hahn notes that the United States was also suffering from “Somalia Syndrome” following Operation Restore Hope and the “Blackhawk Down” incident, leading to a reluctance to commit US forces in resolving internal African disputes.

This chapter draws on detailed accounts of internal deliberations, international negotiations, and US military records of involvement at the time to provide a balanced narrative of the resolution of the conflict in Liberia.

Overall, Hahn provides a clear and concise narrative of Liberian history and US involvement. The book’s strength is the identification and weaving together of the historical, economic, military, and social factors driving that history.

Hahn provides a balanced account of US involvement, frequently criticizing shortsighted and selfish decisions taken by the US government and companies as well as their roles in resolving internal conflicts.

If there is one criticism, it is that the account of US military activities in Liberia is underdeveloped. Although not vital to the overall analysis, Hahn proposes in his introduction that his book “demonstrates how US military power has been the primary influence shaping the Liberian state.”

Whether this is true or not, further description and analysis of those military operations would be necessary to support that thesis. Despite this possible shortcoming, Hahn’s book is invaluable for anyone seeking to understand Liberian history and the role of the United States in that story.

(Jeffrey Biller is Assistant Professor, United States Air Force Academy)

(The Air Force Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs (JIPA) — United States’ Air Force and Khabarhub — Nepal’s popular news portal, have agreed on a sole partnership to disseminate JIPA research-based articles from Nepal. This article appears courtesy of Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs and may be found in its original form here https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA)

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