Liberian Verdict Validates Bush Strategy

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor's conviction for war crimes in Sierra Leone represents another milestone in a long journey toward peace, freedom and justice for residents of both African nations.


A pivotal marker on the road to progress was President George W. Bush's call in June 2003 for Taylor to "step down so that his country could be spared further bloodshed." The timing of Bush's words was amplified as he prepared to depart on his first multi-country trip as president to Africa and was on the verge of sending U.S. Marines to Liberia. The United States was widely viewed as key in stopping Liberia's brutal 14-year civil war, which Taylor funded by plundering Sierra Leone's conflict diamonds with the help of that country's Revolutionary United Front rebels.

U.S. leadership and diplomacy shaped the events that culminated in Taylor's conviction on April 26. Looking back on the United States' role in Liberia offers lessons on the use of American power to end tyranny and make way for justice to prevail.

First, sustained presidential leadership and engagement was necessary to build the coalition and consensus among African leaders that led to Taylor's resignation and exile to Nigeria in August 2003. Three years later, after attempting to flee Nigeria, Taylor was turned over as an indicted war criminal for trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

President Bush and Ghanaian President John Kufuor, then chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and mediator of the Liberia peace talks, spoke often to develop the strategy for ending the regional war. Bush also used his first trip to Senegal to build consensus with West African leaders. His meetings with South African President Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria were crucial for gaining African Union buy-in.

In Nigeria, Bush and President Olusegun Obasanjo conferred to coordinate the diplomatic and military intervention of both their countries. Seven weeks after Bush demanded that Taylor step down, he did. Taylor left Monrovia on a Nigerian plane, and Nigerian forces were the first on the ground in Liberia, followed by U.S. Marines deployed to secure Liberia's Roberts International Airport so that food replaced weapons entering the country.

Second, Bush smartly used limited American military power to bring an end to Liberia's war. He made Taylor's exit a condition for deploying U.S. Marines to Liberia and defined a discrete humanitarian mission and, over the horizon, an in extremis role for the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.


Using international pressure to "do something" about escalating violence, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell successfully leveraged U.S. military engagement to push for fast United Nations action. Just one month after Taylor's departure, U.N. peacekeepers arrived in Liberia.

The U.S. government also trained and financed ECOWAS troops from Nigeria, Mali and Senegal to deploy to Liberia, until they were quickly converted into a U.N. peacekeeping force with a mandate to protect civilians and secure the countryside. Ultimately, up to 15,000 multinational U.N. peacekeepers were critical for the success of Liberia's peace process and democratic elections that ushered into office Africa's first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in January 2006.


Finally, and most important, President Bush and his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice made Liberia a priority. For eight years the Bush administration invested the necessary attention, energy and diplomatic and financial resources to implement a comprehensive strategy in Liberia and the region.

Justice and State Department lawyers advised the U.N. and the government of Sierra Leone on the design of the Special Court, an innovative hybrid international court established in 2002. U.S. diplomats led the charge at the U.N. to place comprehensive sanctions on Liberia, including an arms embargo, a ban on timber and diamonds and travel restrictions on senior Liberian officials.


Bush and Rice also shut down Taylor's resource spigot from Qaddafi in 2003 by linking Libya's compliance with U.N. sanctions on Liberia to the progress of U.S., United Kingdom and Libya talks on nonproliferation. The U.S. ambassador and the Embassy staff stood their ground, even under heavy shelling by rebel forces, rather than evacuate the mission and abandon Liberians, as had been done 13 times by previous administrations.

Bush and his national security team used all elements of U.S. power to steer Liberia toward peace when it reached a tipping point of escalated violence in 2003. The investment in freedom was reinforced in 2006 when, after the election of Liberia's democratic government, Taylor was transferred for trial at The Hague to protect regional stability.


The Special Court of Sierra Leone delivered justice to the region last week by convicting Taylor of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Achieving the region's next milestones — broad-based reconciliation and prosperity — will require sustained American leadership.

Jendayi Frazer served under President George W. Bush as the special assistant and senior director for Africa from 2001 to 2004. In 2004 she became the first American female ambassador to South Africa, and from 2005 to 2009 she was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Currently, Frazer is a distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon University.


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