Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

The Problem with Nuclear Non-Proliferation

In ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out‘, (London Review of Books, 23 February 2012, Vol 34, No.4, pp 37-38), Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka provide us an important indictment of the so-called ‘non-proliferation complex’, which is,

[A] loose conglomeration of academic programmes, think tanks, NGOs, charitable foundations and government departments, all formally dedicated to the reduction of nuclear danger. Its twin goals are to stop the spread of nuclear technologies to small, anti-Western regimes and, eventually, to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.

This ‘complex’ does not work, if the extent of nuclear proliferation and the size of nuclear weapons arsenals worldwide is any indication. But more problematically, the ‘complex’ is,

[A] classic liberal institution that pretends to universalism while being in hock to the world’s most powerful states. Moreover, its pursuit of modest, ‘realistic’ goals has helped to undermine the very possibility of substantial action on nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to nonproliferation has been the failure of the ‘non-proliferation complex’ to internalize a simple truth:

[I]f smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own.

The self-serving hypocrisy of nuclear weapon states, and its implicit acceptance by the ‘complex’ is a long-running farce, depressingly well-known to most.  This hypocrisy is the single most important factor in ensuring that non-proliferation is a non-starter; it ensures the non-proliferation manifesto is foundationally malformed.

For instance, Craig and Ruzicka note the announcement, by the  Obama administration, of its commitment–as part of a deal to secure approval of the ratification of the New Start treaty between Russia and the US in 2010–of $85 billion to the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal over the next ten years. This news attracted little critique from the ‘complex’, which seems to prefer a) taking a deferential attitude towards the major powers, a holdover from an early stance adopted during the Cold War and b) concentrating on the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty and its attendant conferences.  (The NPT allows its signatories to acquire technologies for power production that cannot be distinguished easily from those used for weapons production; it thus allows the ‘spreading of the bomb without quite breaking the rules.’ )

The relationship between the major powers and the ‘complex’ has been hammered out at the NPT conferences; nonproliferation efforts now find their primary focus directed outward at control worldwide, instead of inwards at weapons reduction programs. This has damaging consequences:

[T]he complex’s single-minded focus on keeping the bomb out of the hands of anti-Western dictators provided the neoconservative architects of the sanctions and the [Iraq] war with a useful liberal justification for their campaigns. If you keep calling for something, eventually someone might take you seriously: the complex kept its head down during the run-up to war in 2002-3 because stressing the dangers of nuclear proliferation can’t easily be reconciled with opposition to military action intended to do something real about them. We might see the same thing happen again over Iran.

Without major disarmament by nuclear powers, and the concomitant reduction in the hypocrisy that currently underwrites nuclear non-proliferation efforts, prospects for such a ghastly revisitation appear bright.