US-Liberia: Anatomy of an Unbalanced Relationship


A book review of
Liberia and The *United States During the Cold War: Limits of Reciprocity, by D. Elwood Dunn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 262 Pages

When the 1980 military coup by a group of enlisted men overthrew the William R. Tolbert government and shattered the image of stability Liberia had conveyed to the world, the question that came to every mind was: “How was this possible under the watch of America?” Liberia was long considered a bastion of American influence on the continent, as far back as its creation for African American immigrants in the 19th Century when European colonial powers were scrambling to apportion the African continent among them.

A decade later, the same question arose when Samuel K. Doe was overthrown through a bloody military insurrection launched by Charles Taylor, who had escaped an American jail. As a member of the then interim government peace negotiations team that traveled throughout West
Africa in search of a peaceful settlement with Charles Taylor to the conflict, every regional leader, from Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria to Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire, to Dawda Jawara of the Gambia, said that “the conflict will be over when America decides that it is time to end it.”

And as if to provide credence to the theory of American control over everything in Liberian politics, the Liberian civil war ended in 2003 with President Charles Taylor was forced into exile after he was pressured to do so by then US President George W. Bush.

The world looked at Liberia as an American entity on the continent. Liberian leaders sought to project that perception throughout the history of the West African country founded by the American Colonization Society with support from US Congressional grants.

The relationship between the two countries has somehow been more complex and has traversed different periods where the leadership of the two nations engaged in political gamesmanship to up their respective interests, with varying degrees of success. The relationship was unlike the type of protectionist or neo-colonial ties that existed between European powers and their former colonies.
In his well-researched book Liberia and the United States During the Cold War, Limits of Reciprocity (Palgrave, Macmillan 2009), Professor D. Elwood Dunn puts the relationship through the lenses of microscopic examination. He does so with a rare attention to every historical, political and economical detail that somehow served to cement the ties between the two nations for more than a century. Dunn approaches the subject as a scientist who has a keen sense of observation, as the political science theorist analyzing the factors that determine inter-state relationship and also, very importantly, as an actor who was once on the stage. Throughout all, he never lost his seat as the objective historian.

Dunn divides his book in four almost equal parts. The first part deals with the end of the period in office of President Edwin Barclay, with newly elected William Tubman in tow. Tubman’s long reign took US-Liberia relationship to a higher level of interaction, with the cold war looming as a backdrop in an uncertain world. Tubman passed the mantle to his vice-president, William R. Tolbert whose assassination opens the door to a long era of political turmoil in Liberia. The last quarter of the book deals with the rise and fall of the military regime of Samuel K. Doe, during which the US seemed to attach more importance to the relationship and demonstrated this by providing more economic aid to Liberia than at any other time. This is all followed by a concluding part where the author, as a Liberian political scientist and former government official, draws some conclusions and makes some suggestions regarding the history of the relationship and the way forward towards a more mature interaction between the two countries.

Given the traditional centrality of the United States to Liberia’s foreign relations, the book attempts to place the relationship in historical perspective as it centers on the Cold War years of Tubman, Tolbert and Doe presidencies. As such, it estimates the qui pro quo rapport between the two governments, highlighting the limits of reciprocal exchange. Prescriptions suggest the need for Liberia to strengthen her West African ties in appreciation of both the interests of the Liberian people and US multilateral Africa policy.

Each of these periods is deeply scrutinized, with its defining moments highlighted.

With Barclay and the context of World War II, it was all about US involvement in that international conflagration. It was during that period of uncertainty that the US saw Liberia as a potentially critical “partner”, given its proximity to Brazil through their continental bulges. This will lead to the building by the US of both the international airport near Firestone as well as the Freeport of Monrovia.

When Tubman succeeded Barclay, the winds of the Cold war were already blowing across the world and the African continent became a playground for superpower rivalry. The newly independent African states added another dimension to the equation, providing the skilled Tubman an opportunity to pose as conveyor of American interests on the continent. During his 27-year reign, he would carefully manage to maintain American confidence and interest. In summing US relations with the Tubman government, Dunn asserts: “Though the Americans pressed Tubman on many fronts, whether domestic or international, but mostly domestic, they never seriously considered deserting him. […] A trusting relationship was maintained. Tubman was their “benevolent dictator…” page 85.

The successor of Tubman at the height of the Cold War, William Tolbert had more difficult relationships with the US. According to Dunn, these difficulties stem from far back when some American health officials in Monrovia were tenants in a Tolbert family facility. More importantly, on the policy front, the inability of Tolbert to put in place a real political transformation although he often pledged to do so, coupled with the President’s inability to embrace “change” all complicated the relationship. Also, according to Dunn, the regime of Tolbert was drowned in contradictions and plagued by indecisiveness, the least of which was the role played by members of the President’s family while he turned a blind eye.

In their assessment of Tolbert, American officials thought that he “was seen as part of a ‘family’ popularly regarded with both fear and suspicion [and] representing all that is reactionary in Liberia… […] No matter how Tolbert governed, the analysis continued, the Americans feared he would make enemies and that conspiracies and plots would arise to undermine or even overthrow his government…” (P. 89) In the Americans’ view of the Tolbert regime, “an early pattern of presidential indecisiveness did not bode well for the Tolbert presidency.” (P. 91).

By the time the Tolbert regime came to an end, the US had reduced its assistance to Liberia to less than ten million dollars for the same year President Carter stopped over in Liberia, on his way back from a visit to Nigeria. In conclusion, and according to Dunn, “US reaction to Tolbert’s policies and the chemistry between US and Liberian officials did not bode well for the Tolbert agenda. The renegotiation of concession agreements soured the relationship, as did diplomatic negotiations between the two countries.” (P. 136)
The US did not seem overly unhappy by the bloody coup that ended the Tolbert administration. In fact, writes Dunn, “When Tolbert was violently deposed, the Americans protested only the excesses of the new military regime.” (P. 137)

The People Redemption Council (PRC) government of Samuel K. Doe received more support, both politically and economically than any other Liberian government in the history. According Dunn, early on in 1981, an-8-point memorandum signed by President Ronald Reagan outlined a strategy on how to strengthen governance and economic development during the military regime. The American government would continue on the same path until the beginning of the Charles Taylor war in 1989, notwithstanding occasional misunderstandings with the Liberian military.

Dunn writes, “The United States was clearly disposed to work with Doe. This was the case because, as the Americans reasoned, Doe was clearly symbolic of the new Liberian reality, having come from the ranks of the alienated indigenous majority that deserved support in furtherance of democracy in Liberia (P.139) […],” adding that “although there was some evidence of ambivalence, in both attitude and action, the American response to the junta was overwhelmingly supportive.” (P. 142).

The tenure of each of the presidents is dissected by the writer in-depth. In each case, from Barclay to Doe, there seemed to be a lack of reciprocity in the relationship. Liberia hinged its development on aid from the US while the US felt no direct responsibility for the fate of the Liberian people. This policy of qui pro-quo never changed throughout history. Liberia’s political leaders seemed to “impose” on the US a “family” relationship that was totally one-sided and found no echo in Washington, DC.

The question of reciprocity as indicated in the title of the book points to an important aspect of the ties between the two nations and Dunn points to its limits. On the symbolic aspect of the relationships, it will be worth noting that every Liberian president in the study has lobbied for and obtained “invitations” at the White House but only two US presidents, in the same period set foot on Liberia soil. In the first instance, Roosevelt would only stop at Firestone where American troops were stationed where Barclay and Tubman were driven to meet him. Almost 40 years later, Jimmy Carter will spend a few hours in Monrovia, after much lobbying by both President Tolbert who pulled every imaginable rope and … Nigeria. Tubman had to fight tooth and nail to be the first African president to be received by Kennedy, ahead of Nkrumah.

Dunn’s book is richly documented, unearthing declassified memos, letters, diplomatic cables and other forms of correspondence both in Liberia and the US. The book does not limit itself to the political nature of the relationship. It also takes a close look at the development of Liberian socio-economic landscape during that period, analyzing every government and its policies and how those policies were affected by the ties with US. It also goes at length to scrutinize the governing style of each of the Liberian regimes and their inner workings.

As Whitworth University political science professor John Yoder writes, “Dunn combines the tools of a dispassionate social scientist with the detailed knowledge of an insider to produce a remarkably even-handed and insightful study.” This book is a compelling reading for students of politics and history, interested in not only US-Liberia relationships, but also in the rapports between a “soft power” and a “superpower,” where friendship and partnership are unilaterally defined, upheld or dropped according to the needs of the moment for the superpower.


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