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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We get three perspectives on the war in Liberia now. Herman Cohen was assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush administration. He is now a senior adviser with the Global Coalition for Africa.
Reed Kramer is president and managing editor of “African News Service” and a veteran Africa watcher.
And Rep. Donald Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of an Africa subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. And starting with you, Mr. Payne, how do you read the situation in Liberia today?
REP. DONALD PAYNE, (D) New Jersey: Well, I, I’m, I’m very encouraged by the discussion that’s going on with our assistant secretary of state, George Moose, who was there in Liberia and had been meeting with the diplomatic discussion that’s been going on to keep the cease-fire. As you know, there’s been a temporary cease-fire.
And so I’m pretty optimistic because many of the Liberians have said right along if the United States of America would take more of an active role in the negotiations–we’re not talking about sending in the military or, or peacekeepers — but to take a stronger hand in the negotiations just because, as it’s been indicated on your show about the relationship between Liberia, they felt that those who came to see me–and many hundreds actually during the past few weeks have come to my offices, they think that the warring factions will listen.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are you optimistic, Herman Cohen? Do you think the warring factions will listen?
HERMAN COHEN, Former State Department Official: I’m less optimistic. I think that the situation there has degenerated to such an extent that Liberia’s being held hostage by these armed bands of young thugs who were on drugs, who are on alcohol, and I think it’s going to take a strong outside force really to, to recuperate the situation there.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Reed Kramer, what’s your reading of the situation?
REED KRAMER, Africa News Service: I think without an honest broker it’s hard to see a resolution, but it’s certainly that the people of Liberia have expressed a strong will for peace, but they–the difficulty is you’ve got a few ruthless and powerful men supported by heavily armed armies of youth and, and children really who are not able to make rational judgments and who are easily manipulated. Without some strong force in there, it’s going to be difficult.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you mean strong military force, I mean, because you heard, umm, you know, what role Sec. Moose is playing and Sec. Christopher said on this program last night that he was encouraging the, the peace process to continue with the support of the neighboring countries, you don’t think that’s enough?
MR. KRAMER: Well, the structure is there. There’s a peace plan in place, and there’s the West African peacekeeping force. But that force is suffering from a lack of resources.
They’ve, they’ve drawn down the men, the ones who are there are not–often go without being paid so there’s a morale problem, so until that force can be at the strength that the West African commanders have said they need, at a minimum 12,000, instead of something like half of that there now, it can’t be effective and separated into these armed groups.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Congressman Payne, there are two optimistic–we don’t usually do this on this program, but we’ve got two pessimists to one optimist. Have they dampened your enthusiasm?
REP. PAYNE: No, I believe that first of all that, as I indicated, there is a great deal of respect on the part of Liberians for the USA. I think that the–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But the–
REP. PAYNE: Fortunately, we did not move in diplomatically a number of years ago, and if we done certain smaller things that were asked for at that time–as a matter of fact, President Rollins from Ghana simply asked for several helicopters, and he felt at that time transportation would have been able to move the negotiations along–but we said that, uh, uh, they were not available at the time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When is this, when was this?
REP. PAYNE: This was when he was president of the ECOMOG, umm, and he did negotiations in Liberia two years ago, a year and a half ago. The only reason I’m optimistic is that I–and I agree–it would have to certainly be a bolstering of the, of the military, and I think that if a call went out to West African countries, um, that we could perhaps get a stronger force, the question is, though, who’s going to pay for it and I think that’s been the whole problem right along.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Cohen, what do you say about that, because there are those who have been critical of the United States, saying it didn’t get involved soon enough and without going back to when you were Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and the United States went there at another time of turmoil, but simply to evacuate American citizens, do you think America’s been active enough?
MR. COHEN: Well, I think we missed a window of opportunity back in 1990, May and June. The situation was bad but it was not nearly as bad as it is today. And I think if we had had an aggressive, diplomatic approach in those days, uh, and really more or less taken charge of the negotiations, I think we might have set it right at that point, but a decision was made back in 1990 that we would just take care of American citizens, evacuate our people, and allow the Liberians and the West Africans to do it themselves, and, and I kind of regret that decision in those days.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think we should be doing more now? Umm, you heard what Congressman Payne said.
MR. COHEN: I agree with Congress Payne that because of the historical relationship, the United States has a tremendous amount of influence there among leaders and among ordinary people, and I would strongly recommend an aggressive, diplomatic position right now. However, it would have to be accompanied by a major injection of forces because these people are out of control.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Whose forces?
MR. COHEN: Well, I would say the West Africans–as Reed Kramer says–if they were bolstered, if they got some money and they got some fresh blood, that would work. But I’m inclined to say it should be United Nations. It’s gotten to that point where it needs a major operation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Reed Kramer, today, the–today or yesterday the United States said they were giving, I think, something like $30 million to help bolster the West African peacekeeping force, but they’ve been accused of being participants in the plundering? I mean, have–what’s happening there, and is more money going to help bolster this force? The United States’ money, by the way, was conditional on the troops proving their effectiveness, but, but can they be a good force?
MR. KRAMER: There’s nothing perfect about the West African peacekeeping force or any other, for that matter, but the possibilities for strengthening seem to be there, and the West African governments have asked specifically for U.S. logistical support.
With U.S. troops at the embassy, with ships offshore, they think there’s an opportunity for the United States to help bring in the vital equipment, ferry in troops, and, and provide some back-up that would allow them to be effective, and the more that the situation is focused on by the world community, the more that is under scrutiny, the less opportunity there will be for the kinds of misdeeds that have been reported on behalf of the peacekeepers.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Congressman Payne, what do you think about that?
REP. PAYNE: I–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, have Africans generally done enough to help themselves in this situation.
REP. PAYNE: Well, I think that the development of the ECOMOG force was the first time that West Africa really brought in an organized group. Of course, the troops were made up primarily of Nigerian soldiers, and, as you know, what’s happening in Nigeria is, is disgraceful and so it’s sort of we sent in sort of the devil’s troops. I think that if we had other troops, Botswanans and Ghanaians and some of the other West African countries to send in troops, although I agree the United Nations would really be the appropriate force.
As Sec. Cohen said, former Sec. Cohen said, it was at the time when this occurred we felt that if the U.S. could have gotten a little force into take Doe out, that was what it started about, they wanted to get Doe. The same way that Menghistu was taken out of Ethiopia through the work of Sec. Cohen, that civil war ended.
I believe that if we had taken, as Sec. Cohen mentioned, that window of opportunity at that time when we had Marines–and to simply not be engaged in the war–take Doe out, I think that the civil war, I believe at that time, would have ended. We would have had to work to get civil society back, but I think the killing and the fighting would not have occurred. We were getting around the Persian Gulf situation, and there was just not the will to do that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Herman Cohen, do you think the Africans, themselves, have done enough to help in this situation?
MR. COHEN: I want to put in a good word here for the West African forces. Back in August of 1990, they came in there and they saved Monrovia from mass starvation. It was really horrible and they came in there, they were very professional, and they allowed humanitarian supplies to go through.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That’s the ECOMOG force, which is the acronym that Donald Payne has referred to.
MR. COHEN: That’s right, and as he said, made up mainly of Nigerians, but there were Ghanaians, people from Gambia, from Guinea, a few other countries, and I think up until recently, they, they’ve really done very well, but you know, they spent hundreds of millions of dollars, which is a lot of money for Africans, and I think they’re now burned out frankly, and they need something bigger to take care of the situation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what could do that? If the U.S. isn’t willing to commit troops, you don’t think they should, right? You think it should be the UN forces, right?
MR. COHEN: Yes. Well, all it would take is for the United States to have some leadership in the Security Council and say, let’s get this thing over with and let’s spend the resources that are necessary, and with some U.S. logistics, I think it could work.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Can, can anything be done to achieve a real peace if the combatants, like these kids we see running around the streets, Reed Kramer, if they aren’t somehow reined in? I mean, is there any way to, to rein in those ten and twelve year olds who are drinking and using drugs and running amuck?
MR. KRAMER: Well, I don’t think they’re going to rein themselves in voluntarily but that’s, that’s not an unusual situation in a civil war. You need some, some force, some effort to, to curb that situation.
There’s a civil society in Liberia which has tried to and has at times had an effective role in the peace process which will emerge again as soon as these forces are sidelined, and what the West Africans are trying to do, what their peace plan calls for, is to separate the warring parties first and then to begin the disarmament process.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Donald Payne, beyond the historic ties between the United States and Liberia, is there any other interest that the United States has in this sort of new emerging era of defining how we engage ourselves based on our national interest?
REP. PAYNE: Well, you know, at the end of the Cold War, there has been a, a move away from engagement. As you know, during the Cold War, Zaire, Angola, these were hot spots. Our policies were driven by the constructive engagement of South Africa. This country supported the apartheid government because they were fighting against Communism. Mobutu and Zaire was created — Savimbi in Angola.
Today there is less interest, but I think that we, in order to have stability, in order to keep starvation away, in order to even control international drug trafficking, we have to remain engaged in developing countries. Many of them want democracy. Many of them are trying it, and it is working in a lot of countries.
I believe that it’s the responsible thing to do to remain engaged in these new fledgling democracies, to have the resources put forth, to stabilize de-stabilized situations like it is in Nigeria, because in the long run, it will be much less expensive to prevent these things from occurring, and the world is not going to allow people to simply starve to death anywhere. And so I think that the prevention is worth a pound of cure.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, gentlemen, thank you all.