'Liberia itself is sui generis - unique. I could use several adjectives about it - "odd", "wacky", "phenomenal" or even "weird".' John Gunther, 'Inside Africa' (1953)
Before he heads off on his trip to Africa next week, President Bush might usefully dig out an old book from one of the many official libraries at his disposal. It was written by the American journalist John Gunther, who undertook a massive survey of Africa 60 years ago. President Bush will decide whether to send his forces into the west African state of Liberia, possibly within days. Mr Gunther's book would give him some valuable background.
Gunther visited Liberia during the reign of President William Tubman. His account of that visit was written in a gently patronising tone and with an obvious reluctance to annoy his host. But Gunther could not avoid some shocking truths. Infant mortality ran at 75 per cent in many areas. Only two Liberians had ever qualified as doctors. Corruption was rampant and the capital swarmed with thieves.
The country was then as it is now: a basket case. This depressed the idealistic John Gunther for many reasons, not least because Liberia was the only black-ruled republic he visited on his journey, and because it had been founded by freed American slaves. Well actually it was founded by an American naval lieutenant accompanied by a shipload of freed slaves who were refused entry to the British colony of Sierra Leone and pitched up on the Liberian coast instead. There the naval officer persuaded the local chiefs, at the point of a gun, to accept the freed slaves. In this way what was intended to be a grand philanthropic experiment was launched. The national flag featured red stripes and a single blue star, the currency was the US dollar. The capital, Monrovia, is named after the 19th-century US president James Monroe, and townships have names such as Maryland and Louisiana.
By the time John Gunther reached Monrovia, the country had been nominally independent for more than a century. "It is almost miraculous", wrote one contemporary observer, "that a handful of captured Africans and freed slaves from America should have succeeded in making a new life for themselves in West Africa." But Gunther didn't swallow this line. Even if he praised the genial but inept President Tubman, the writer recognised a mess when he saw one. As one American official said to him at the time: "This is a sick country. Maybe it will get well." That was one hell of a conditional.
Now, as George Bush contemplates the dispatch of American peacekeepers, US officials are again calling Liberia a stricken place. But they must be even more doubtful that it will get well.
The long-forgotten State Department official quoted by John Gunther would have lived to see that Liberia drift further into illness. But neither he nor the journalist could have guessed at the horrors to come. The land of the freed slaves became an insane asylum. Nearly 30 years later, another American journalist, David Lamb, arrived in the country as a new president was taking office. Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, an illiterate soldier, had just murdered the incumbent and was busy rounding up other members of the old regime. To get a flavour of what was coming for Liberia, here is Lamb's account of the execution of the cabinet on a beach in Monrovia:
"Sergeant Doe's motorcade arrived with a roar and nine of the condemned men were dragged from the bus - the remaining four would witness the spectacle and be pulled out later - and bound to the telephone poles. They wore only underpants. The soldiers taunted them and tickled them during the 20 minutes it took to get the firing squad organised. James Phillips, the finance minister and the husband of my travel agent friend from Washington DC, wet his underpants."
The men were shot and then the troops rushed forward cheering to kick and beat the corpses. Not long after that, President Ronald Reagan welcomed Doe at the White House and praised him as a defender of freedom. "General" Doe had wisely lined up with the US in the Cold War battles then being fought in southern Africa.
Doe met his end in gruesome circumstances some years later. He was tortured to death, and his killers videotaped the whole performance. Since then Liberia has been ripped asunder by a succession of warlords; the most venal and vicious of them all is the current President, Charles Taylor. To reach the top of that particular pile takes some lust for killing and looting, but like other Liberian monsters before him, Mr Taylor has pushed his luck too far. By exporting his wars of greed to neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea, and by helping to destabilise Ivory Coast, Taylor raised the stakes and pushed a notoriously reluctant international community into thinking about action.
The bulletins of human rights organisations have described how hundreds of thousands have been killed, and many more maimed, as Taylor and other warlords plundered the region's diamond resources. But nothing was done about Taylor until the UN court in Sierra Leone indicted him as a war criminal last month. Then, with rebels about to enter Monrovia (and the usual sad thousands fleeing in fear), the word came that Washington wanted an end to this misery.
I was surprised. I was also happy. It suggested to me that the Mogadishu line - that invisible mark across which US troops would never again step - had been erased. (Back in 1994, the United States retreated from peacekeeping in Africa after 18 of its troops were killed in Somalia. The Clinton administration refused to intervene to stop the Rwandan genocide later that year, largely because of the Mogadishu experience.)
In the run-up to his election as President, George Bush had pledged not to send American troops into situations like Rwanda or Liberia. But the fact that he is now talking about such a mission - however limited the US involvement - reveals the change that has taken place in American policy. It has a lot to do with the rhetoric now being used to defend the invasion of Iraq. With no weapons of mass destruction yet discovered, the Bush administration has fallen back on the human rights argument (ie it was right to get rid of Saddam so that the Iraqi people could live free from his terror). But if Saddam was the ultimate ravening warlord in the Middle East, how could the Bush administration not follow the logic of its own human rights rhetoric when faced with the likes of Charles Taylor in Liberia?
Whatever Mr Bush's motives, he deserves credit for being prepared to take the risk of intervention. But here is the key: Liberia is a mess because the world ignored it for decades. It is still said in Washington - Iraq notwithstanding - that the US doesn't do "nation building". But if America goes into Liberia as a short-term humanitarian exercise and without a political plan to create a government of the people and for the people, it might as well stay at home. The country founded by America's freed slaves deserves true liberation.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content