Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Rescuing Ourselves: When Desperate Victims in Distant Conflicts Plead for Help, Can America Do More Than Save Its Own?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Rescuing Ourselves: When Desperate Victims in Distant Conflicts Plead for Help, Can America Do More Than Save Its Own?

Article excerpt

"It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which are accountable.--Moliere, actor and playwright (1622-1673)

IMAGINE TIlE EUPHORIA that must have swept through the national football arena in Monrovia, Laberia, on June 13. Thousands of refugees had been crammed into the stadium for days, cowering under a driving rain, seeking sanctuary--again--from 14 years of civil war. On three sides of the city, rebel forces had been killing civilians indiscriminately. Inside, the two things most in evidence were rotting corpses and armed thugs.

The Pentagon remounted that day that the U.S.S. Kearsarge--carrying attack helicopters and 3,000 bristling Marines--was diverted to Liberian waters from its journey home from Iraq. U.S. forces were on their way to a land with which America had deep historical bonds. Liberia was founded by freed slaves in 1822; its capital is named after U.S. President James Monroe.

The most recent effort to topple Liberian president Charles Taylor has come with wearying tales of brutal crimes. As is often the case when lawlessness reigns, both government and insurgent forces have engaged in mayhem and murder. "At night we don't sleep," said refugee Ciaffa Fahnbulleh. "Fighters go around raping, breaking into people's homes and looting," Enslaved child soldiers, doped up to make them fearless and fierce, have perpetrated many of the most macabre atrocities. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of one such young warrior: he wore a teddy bear pack on his back.

Imagine, then, how quickly elation in that arena turned to bitter disappointment when the full meaning of the Pentagon's announcement became clear Was the American military coming to bang a few heads together, protect vulnerable refugees, and bring an end to bloodshed and butchery? No, American soldiers were deployed for one reason--to rescue Americans.

According to the U.S. Navy's Web site, the Kearsarge was being diverted "to aid in the potential evacuation of U.S. citizens." "The United States." said Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner, "is committed to providing for the safety of its citizens." Special operations forces, said the Navy, were helping to conduct "an orderly departure of U.S. citizens" in what they candidly dubbed "Operation Shining Express."

There are no American national interests in Liberia. There is no oil. There are no weapons of mass destruction. On the American geostrategic chessboard. Liberia might as well be on the moon.

AFTER THE FAILED coup attempt in Ivory Coast last September, U.S. forces made a dramatic helicopter rescue of Americans and left Ivorians to their fate. American officials made it clear that U.S. troops wouldn't assist the frantic Ivorians. "The U.S. European Command is moving forces to the region to ensure the safety of American citizens," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald Sewell. "This movement was undertaken solely for the purpose of protecting American citizens and property," President Bush wrote to Congress. "U.S. forces will re-deploy as soon as it is determined that this mission is completed."

Our sins of omission in Liberia and Ivory Coast have been magnified a hundredfold in Congo. Although Afghanistan over the past quarter-century might give it a run for its money, Congo today might well be the most wretched place on earth. In recent months the citizens of Congo have seen villages burnt to the ground, machete massacres of babies, cannibalism, and a complete absence of government over vast portions of the country. The death toll in the past five years is considered to have exceeded 3 million--the greatest bloodletting anywhere since the end of the World War II.

The good news for Congo is that several nations have contributed troops to a French-led U.N. peacekeeping force, woefully inadequate and dilatory though it may be. The bad news is that the most powerful nation on earth refuses to participate.

But what can Washington be expected to do? …

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