I did a poetry reading at the University of Alabama while I was a graduate student there, and before I began reading my silly poems, I was thanking people who put a ton of legwork into getting the reading to run smoothly. They were my friends, colleagues, fellow poets and fiction writers, and my professors; I thanked the people who put in the time to design the posters and post them in the hallways of Morgan Hall, which to this day remains named after a famed segregationist and former U.S. senator. But as a joke at the time, I also quipped that I thanked Moammar Gadhafi for “freaking the (expletive) out of me” for getting me nervous before the reading (I remember exactly what I said because I have a DVD of the reading) for something completely outrageous he said that had piqued the interest of the national and international media. This was in 2009.
We knew that Gadhafi was crazy – and I’m not talking about “crazy uncle” crazy, but certifiable, prone to a stunning deafness to reality and compassion and what people generally refer to as “a soul.” We knew the problems he posed geopolitically, not to mention the intense abuses of power he was prone to and deplorable abuses of human rights. But now, it seems, he’s gone. Hosni Mubark of Egypt is gone. Bashar al-Assad of Syria is all but on his way out, too. Oh, and don’t forget Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president of Tunisia. The so-called Arab Spring has seemingly reaped dividends for the Arab world, with the knees of totalitarian regimes buckling under the weight of what seems to be, at least mostly, a democratic uprising in that part of the world. So kudos to them. Kudos to them for gripping the fat fist of destiny and taking their future into their hands, perhaps with some assistance – wink wink, nudge nudge – from the United States.
But it’s not like we, as a country, haven’t taken a girl like this to the dance before. We’ve seen what happens when regimes topple and new ones take their place. Think of U.S. backed uprisings all over the world, whether they were in Central America, Asia, Europe, or Africa.
Case in point: Liberia, a country I studied extensively as an undergraduate political science student focusing on international relations, had backed the U.S. in the Cold War – something not lost to the U.S. when we supported the overthrow of William Tolbert, the country’s president from 1971-80, by a master sergeant in the Liberian army, Samuel Doe, who managed to finagle tremendous financial assistance from the United States pretty much in exchange for their anti-Communist stance. How did Doe and his cohorts overthrow Tolbert? Basically, by getting stupid drunk, taking members of Tolbert’s cabinet to an Atlantic Ocean beach with pristine sand punctuated with seashells, tying them to telephone poles, and shooting them. One of the many problems of this “uprising” was that not only was it televised live, the drunk soldiers repeatedly missed their targets; these rebels proved, in fact, that a BAC higher than your country’s GDP might have that kind of effect on your marksmanship.
That was how the formal American diplomatic relationship with Doe began, in an eddy of blood and superficial wounds and viscera.
Doe – much to our chagrin – wasn’t a much better ruler. He perpetuated untold human rights atrocities, as well, including the massacre of members of the tribes that Doe’s attempted-overthrowers belonged to, but this time under the banner of American support from the Reagan administration. Then Charles Taylor overthrew Doe, prompting a civil war – which, in my opinion, rivals the one in Iraq in terms of unabridged horror – that was fueled by revenue from the illicit diamond trade in Sierra Leone (You know the movie “Blood Diamond” with Leonardo DiCaprio? Yeah, kind of based on that). It was almost Biblical: Tolbert begat Doe begat Taylor begat, begat, begat… blood. (I won’t even touch on the horrors in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Somalia, the Congo, and elsewhere in that continent sawed in a thousand tiny pieces by all our worst nightmares)
What makes Liberia unique in the entire rollercoaster of American foreign policy is that it was founded by freed American slaves, people yearning to grasp at the straws of freedom. In the grand skid of time, it was relatively recently that the nation was birthed with freedom in mind. Instead, what its population received – and yes, at the hands of freed slaves exerting dominance over the native population – was dictatorship. It was the painful gasp of air for an asthmatic nation. I’m reminded of mfecane/difaqane (roughly translated as “the crushing/the scattering” in Zulu), in which a native population is overcome by external forces, ones that don’t necessarily have the best interest of the indigenous people in mind.
Liberia is a somewhat stable country now. I have two former colleagues who work there, one from Texas but who studied at Alabama, and another from Liberia originally but who studied in Kalamazoo. And that’s great. They have a new, democratically-elected president, the first female head-of-state in Africa’s history – certainly a step in an uncharted direction for a continent so ravaged by famine and misfortune and colonialism run amok.
But this, this Arab Spring backed by U.S. interests, worries me. I wonder how many Gadhafi-lites or Mubarak-lites these nations will have to go through in the birthing process toward a stable democracy. And don’t get me wrong – I want the Libyan and Syrian and Egyptian and Tunisian people to be free. I want them to, in the words of one of my favorite TV show characters from The West Wing, Toby Zeigler, “look at a globe. Be exposed to social sciences, history. Some literature.”
But we don’t know the Pandora’s box that’s been opened, nor will we for the foreseeable future.