Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia: Challenges of Resistance and Compliance

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Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia: Challenges of Resistance and Compliance by Niels Hahn. Air University Press, 2020, 381 pp. 

Niels Hahn’s Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Libera: Challenges of Resistance and Compliance makes an ambitious promise to reframe the history of US-Liberia relations.

For Hahn, Liberia’s history has been dominated by the US military, and its recent past exemplifies modern US policy making across Africa. He leverages substantial documentary evidence and interviews with Liberian policy makers and former fighters to proceed chronologically through the history of Liberia. Hahn’s book, for all its imperfections, highlights the importance of examining Liberian history through the lens of US policy.

The opening chapters trace Liberia’s history up to 1980. Hahn argues that the American Colonization Society, which spearheaded the effort to establish settlements in Liberia, was not truly a philanthropic organization and sought to remove freed slaves from the United States to mitigate the risk of uprisings like the Haitian Revolution. Hahn pays particular attention to the US Navy’s role in Liberia’s early history from violently coercing local leaders to give up their land to using Liberia as the base from which to patrol the West African coast.

The beginning of the twentieth century was characterized by American industrial efforts to establish the world’s largest rubber plantation. The Firestone company, aided by the US government, engaged in deeply exploitive practices to gain labor for rubber production and influence Liberian elites to give the company favorable terms. Meanwhile, World War II drove the US government to establish bases in Liberia to project power further into Africa and, as the Cold War developed, to use Liberia as a bulwark against Pan-Africanism. With US support, the Liberian government created international organizations to counter Pan-African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah while the US government used Liberia as a springboard for operations across Africa. 

Subsequent chapters follow the presidencies of William Tolbert and Samuel Doe. Tolbert broke from previous Liberian leaders by aligning himself with the Eastern Bloc and left-leaning African nations. He also implemented protectionist measures to develop Liberian industry and secure fairer terms from international corporations. Hahn argues that US opposition to Tolbert’s foreign policy and domestic agenda led to unrest and the eventual removal of Tolbert in a coup led by Samuel Doe. Unlike Tolbert, Doe leaned heavily on US support in the initial stages of his government to secure his regime.

Hahn argues that after 1986 US-Liberian relations deteriorated as the United States pressured Doe for financial reform, Doe looked to the Soviet Union for relief. As rebel groups fought Doe with growing success, the US Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of State were at loggerheads over how to proceed as many policy makers wanted Doe to leave power peacefully to forestall further violence, and others were mistrustful of prominent rebel leader Charles Taylor. Hahn asserts that the US government established and supported the West African-led Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) mission to Liberia as a proxy force and that the eventual killing of Doe was tacitly sanctioned by ECOMOG and the US government.

The concluding chapters cover the period from Doe’s death in 1990 to the present. Foreign powers including much of West Africa, the United States, France, and Libya supported different actors, leading to a series of unsuccessful negotiations and prolonged conflict. Hahn astutely points out that the 1997 election that brought Charles Taylor to power against the wishes of the United States and others was unfairly portrayed by the international community as the result of Liberian irrationality.

Hahn argues more-or-less convincingly that the state of academic and policy discourses in the late 1990s and early 2000s justified intervention in countries like Liberia without considering the role of the international community in fomenting instability in the first place. Hahn asserts that the international community hobbled Taylor’s Liberia by leveraging his support for the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and involvement in the diamond trade to levy sanctions. The final chapters are also where Hahn explores the role of China in Liberia in the most detail. Liberia, like many African nations, found China’s nonintervention principles attractive and Chinese construction, aid, and influence have grown considerably.

Hahn concludes the book by calling for more international relations research to include outside actors in studies of conflict. Hahn successfully argues that philanthropic narratives were mobilized throughout Liberia’s history to justify outside intervention. Lastly, Hahn argues that foreign-imposed neoliberal policies, particularly during the post-Taylor reconstruction, alienate Liberian officials.

Unfortunately, the author missed several opportunities. Hahn fails to deliver what was promised in terms of demonstrating the role of the US military in Liberia. While the US military is mentioned frequently, the description of the US military’s operations in Liberia is shallow. A closer look at US operations in Liberia, such as the DOD assistance to Liberia’s military, would have helped readers understand the scope and impact of the military’s role in Liberia. Few former or current US officials are interviewed.

As a result, some claims about US activities are only sourced to interviews with Liberian sources. For instance, Hahn’s claim that UK and US firms hired thousands of Liberians as mercenaries to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is sourced solely to the Liberian Minister of Labor. Given that Hahn decries the use of “secondary sources or partial informants” by other works about Liberia, it is confusing why he accepts some claims without triangulating (239).

The book would have benefited from more of Liberia’s recent history. The narrative abruptly cuts off around 2010, which stunts the discussion of current US-Liberia relations. Addressing discourses on China in Africa up to 2018–19 would have been an opportunity to relate US policy in Liberia to its broader behavior toward China in Africa.

Overall, Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia covers an understudied topic and provides a readable account of US-Liberia relations for a general audience, but its shortcomings make it difficult to recommend to readers interested in rigorously exploring US operations in Liberia and the case’s wider applicability to the continent.

Marcel Plichta

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."