Friday, November 25, 2016

Embassy Monrovia Under Fire

This is a review of The Embassy - A Story of War and Diplomacy by Dante Paradiso, Beaufort Books, NY 2016. 

This book tracks the violence in Liberia during the fateful summer of 2003 when the ineffective opprobrious government of warlord risen-to-president Charles Taylor was under siege from several groups of equally repugnant rebel forces.  The capital of Monrovia became the focus of conflict with rebels pushing into Bushrod Island and the port area where they confronted Taylor’s rag tag militias defending bridges to the city proper. It was a maelstrom of horror, of indiscriminate shooting and shelling, of intimidation and extortion, of food, water and electrical shortages, of limited medical services.  Thousands perished.  Yet neither side was able to dislodge the other, so the situation spiraled ever downward for the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the fray.

Even as conflict raged Liberians, including representatives of the rebel groups, met in Ghana in an effort to devise a negotiated solution to the crisis.  While they blathered, Taylor stubbornly sought to save his skin and rebels consolidated their positions.  Surprisingly the Ghana talks ultimately devised a solution that would require Taylor to step down, rebels to withdraw, a regional peace keeping force to be inserted, and a transition established that would lead to an elected constitutional government.  The problem was to put this into effect. 

Readers may recall that the United States had a special relationship with Liberia because it was created by freed slaves being repatriated to Africa in the early 19th century. Although never a colony as such, the U.S. always kept a watchful eye on Liberia and that friendship was reciprocated.  Liberians always looked to America to help sort out their internal difficulties. The fact that the U.S. had not acted earlier to refute Master Sergeant Samuel Doe’s bloody takeover, nor thwarted Charles Taylor’s violent accession to power notwithstanding, the expectation for America’s help in 2003 was widespread. 

The violence chased most embassies out of Monrovia, and more expatriates left as conditions deteriorated, but the U.S. embassy headed by career diplomat John Blaney stayed on. At his instigation the ambassador himself and his staff sought throughout the turbulent months to maintain a presence and to work to halt the conflict.  They were regularly under fire as shells rained down on the embassy compound and because of that under enormous pressure from the U.S. military to evacuate, but the ambassador recognized that the U.S. presence was key to morale in the city and could be instrumental in achieving a cease fire and in implementing the political transition.   Blaney convinced Secretary of State Powell of the righteousness of this view and so stayed at post.

The book then is a blow by blow, conversation by conversation, policy thought by policy thought of what transpired inside the embassy during this period. It gives an inside look at how diplomats saw the crisis and what they did in response. Indeed, they were collectively a heroic bunch.  They put their lives on the line more than once, no more so than when the ambassador led a foray across the battle lines into rebel held territory to meet with rebel leaders. Certainly it was this activism and later follow-ups that compelled the rebels to withdraw and to turn over their positions to the regional peacekeeping force. 

The book is written in the present tense, so the reader remains engaged as the saga unfolds. The author employs lots of quotations, citations that were obviously drawn from memory and recorded during interviews with folks many years afterwards. This, of course, permited selective recall of what one would have hoped to say.  Additionally, the book is interesting because the author did not rely upon any official documents so there are no references to embassy reporting that would have unequivocally buttressed the narrative.  However, despite the fact that this is an unconventional history, it is an accurate one. The events described did happen and did unroll along the lines discussed.  Praise is due to the ambassador and his team for their insight, perseverance and competence in damping down a war and helping Liberia achieve peace and progress.

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