by Matt Ellison
On Thursday, October 6, the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program (MSFS) hosted an event showcasing Dante Paradiso’s new book The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy, which chronicles how the United States helped bring an end to the Liberian Civil War in 2003. MSFS concentration chair Nicole Bibbins Sedaca introduced the book’s author Dante Paradiso, an active Foreign Service Officer who served in Liberia during the time the book covers, and Ambassador John Blaney (MSFS'76) who figures centrally in the story.
Given his current role in the Foreign Service, Paradiso made clear that the views he expresses in his book and at this event are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department or the United States government.
Liberia, a small and impoverished West African country of about 4 million people today, suffered a period of tumultuous and violent conflict that began in the 1980s and culminated in bloody civil war from 1989-1996 and again from 1999-2003. In 1989, rebels led by warlord Charles Taylor toppled Liberian President Samuel Doe resulting in years of factional fighting. (Doe had risen to power through his own violent 1980 coup, in which he killed President William R. Tolbert, Jr.) The 1989-1996 war claimed the lives of 200,000 Liberians and displaced a million more into refugee camps. Child soldiers were employed across factions and fighters routinely raped and murdered people of all ages.
A UN-backed 1995 ceasefire led to Charles Taylor’s election as President of Liberia in 1997. Taylor supported rebel warlords in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea during his presidency, for which he is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. A growing number of Liberians opposed Taylor. By 1999, civil war returned again as Guinean-backed Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels fought to control territory in the north. In 2003, a second Ivorian-backed rebel group Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), emerged in the south. By the summer of 2003, LURD forces surrounded the capital Monrovia and began shelling the besieged city, including near the U.S. embassy, which killed many civilians.
“The story covers a very narrow period of time—June to August, 2003. And that time turned out to be the most consequential point at the end of the Liberian Civil War,” Paradiso said.
This was a point where the country could have completely disintegrated, with people talking at the time about a ‘Somalia West.’ Liberia was outside of the community of nations in almost every
“Charles Taylor was known far and wide as the cause or the architect of instability throughout West Africa. In 2003, a war that had started years before had come home and come into the capital,” Paradiso said. “The question for the United States was: Do we walk away from the situation and just let it fall apart or do we try to play some facilitator role to end the conflict?”
For Blaney, the decision about whether to close the Embassy or not was about doing the right thing regardless of the opposition he faced from the outside. Blaney encountered pressure from others within the U.S. government, especially at a time when much more American resources and attention were focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There were a lot of people in Washington who didn’t see any interest involved for the United States,” Blaney said.
Blaney spoke of how following his confirmation as Ambassador, then Secretary of State Colin Powell, told him a few words that would guide his approach to these inter-agency battles. “What Powell said to me was, ‘you don’t work for me anymore,’ and then he turned around on his heel and he walked off. I was perplexed,” Blaney said. “I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I sure found out what he meant by that over the next three years, because I had to defy almost every single agency in the U.S. Government to get the job done. The line I always used was ‘If you have a problem with what I’m doing, call my boss, because I work for President Bush and he’ll call me up and I’ll do whatever he says.’ Well, of course, the phone never rang. I didn’t make many friends, but sometimes you gotta do the right thing.”
Blaney believed that the risks of keeping the Embassy open were worth taking, since closing the embassy and withdrawing could present far greater costs. “If we pull out, we leave a humanitarian disaster on the scale of Rwanda,” Paradiso explained of his former boss’ position.
This is a country that the United States essentially founded in the 1820s. This is the one country the United States has really the closest relationship to in Africa historically. If you walk away from that, you’re basically saying we don’t have much of an Africa policy.
“What the Ambassador realized is that we’ve got to build trust. The way he ended up building the trust was working closely with the Nigerian force commander to go through the front lines to negotiate with the rebels to withdraw from the city if Charles Taylor would leave. Charles Taylor did leave, but it was not a slam-dunk. From the rebel perspective, they had conquered [Monrovia] and now it was time to take what was theirs.” Paradiso said. “Would Charles Taylor’s side have been able to hold that line? Who knows? Again you’re looking at that repeat of factional fighting that just doesn’t end because there’s no political agreement in place.”
“This is not really just a story about a victory in the case of Liberia ending a war,” Blaney commented. “Charles Taylor was really the epicenter of violence in West Africa for a long period of time. If we hadn’t ended the war on the battlefield—it wasn’t ended at the peace table; it was ended on the battlefield—I do think that whole region would have disintegrated.”
By staying and holding fort, it gave us the opportunity to produce diplomacy,” Paradiso said.
A key part of Blaney’s strategy was simplifying the crisis by removing Liberian President Charles Taylor from the equation. As it was, there was not only the divide between the government and rebels but also big factional splits among the rebel groups themselves. “Frankly, there wasn’t going to be a peace as long as Charles Taylor remained president of the country,” Blaney said. “I think even he knew that.”
“The Ambassador crossed the front lines, he got an agreement, Charles Taylor left and then it was time to consummate the agreement,” Paradiso explained. “Blaney crossed the front lines again and got the rebels to peacefully withdraw from the city. That eventually created the space for—a few days later—a peace agreement in Accra. They were able slowly to bring more forces in to expand the security perimeter.”
“I had a totally superb and unified team,” Blaney concluded. “I’m very proud of all of them, including Dante, but all of them Liberians and Americans. They were all volunteers at this point and there were no divides among U.S. government agencies. Locally, there was only us, there were no divides. One of the reasons for that was that everyone [who was] left there understood that this is a defining moment in my life. They all knew that. And it’s amazing what you can ask people to do when they understand that.”
Professor Bibbins Sedaca concluded the event saying, “To see the MSFS values of leadership, service, ethics and creativity lived out in this way is a reminder for us that those are not just nice things that we put on our letterhead but real values that we have to embody because the real world forces them into real decision making and courageous decisions.”