New Liberian president to address Congress

Civil war left Liberia with steep challenges and a dubious distinction: the country has set the pace for American evacuation missions over the past 15 years.

Civil war left Liberia with steep challenges and a dubious distinction: the country has set the pace for American evacuation missions over the past 15 years.

In total, American forces had to rescue U.S. personnel from Liberia nine times, a number that points to both the constancy of the turmoil in the country and its longtime ties to the United States, which has sought to maintain a presence there nevertheless.

“If the wind’s not blowing, you can’t tell their flag from ours,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). Liberia’s flag, as well as its early government, was patterned after the United States’, with the same red and white stripes (11 versus 13) and the same blue box in the corner (one star instead of 50).

As new President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf makes her second trip to the United States since her surprise election victory last October, Clyburn and other supporters on and off the Hill are pushing Congress to add money for Liberia to the emergency supplemental bill that will pay for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The money is needed to help Johnson Sirleaf, who is to address a joint session of Congress today, demonstrate that she can deliver on campaign promises to reduce unemployment and begin Liberia’s reconstruction, advocates say.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to redefine that country,” Clyburn said. “But she can’t do it without us, and she ought not to have to do it without us.”

Johnson Sirleaf’s election has given supporters new hope that Liberia can turn the corner on a brutal past, when forces of mostly youthful, illiterate combatants took a fairly prosperous country to the brink of collapse.

Domestic fiduciary concerns don’t top the list of reasons supporters are pushing for new help for Liberia, but there is a connection.

The last evacuation took 5,000 people and $500 million to accomplish, according to a document the Liberian government gave a delegation of 11 House members during a February trip there and to Darfur in western Sudan.

“What is an ounce of prevention worth?” the paper asks. The paper’s authors suggest that $80 million would go a long way in helping the country get back on its feet, money for security and road building to help immediately boost employment rolls, to begin the reconstruction of an electric grid and to support the return of Liberians who fled.

The long-standing ties between Liberia and the United States include financial support that dates to 1819, when Congress appropriated $100,000 to the American Colonization Society to establish the country.

The United States remained Liberia’s closest ally until its civil war of 1989 to 1996, which left 200,000 Liberians dead and a million more displaced, according to the State Department. Charles Taylor eventually won an election to become president but did little to improve Liberia’s lot.

Taylor himself fled the country to Nigeria in 2003, after years of continued fighting. He remains there.

Johnson Sirleaf is expected to thank Congress for supporting the removal of Taylor and the interim government and free elections that followed. She also is expected to ask for continued assistance.

The result of the years of conflict is a country with 80 percent unemployment, no power or phone service, and a gross national product of just $152 per person.

Liberia offers the opportunity to “plant the seed of democracy in Africa,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).

Jackson and Clyburn were sponsors of an amendment in the House Financial Operations Appropriations Subcommittee’s markup that added $50 million to the emergency supplemental.

Some Republicans objected to adding money for Liberia onto the supplemental when $128 million that Congress appropriated for 2006 is still unobligated by the administration, which is negotiating with lawmakers over how to spend other parts of the foreign-operations budget.

But the amendment was adopted by voice vote with bipartisan support.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island, which has a significant number of ex-Liberians, plans to work with Senate Appropriation Committee members Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to increase the House appropriation, said spokesman Christopher Spina.

Chafee wants to provide Johnson Sirleaf “the resources she needs to be an effective leader,” Spina said.

In the October election, Liberians chose experience over celebrity. Most U.S. observers believed soccer superstar George Weah would win, but Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank official, stressed the importance of education and the economy in her runoff campaign.

If she wants to be successful, supporters say, it is critical for her to show U.S. backing.

“The United States must provide strong financial support to ensure that as much progress as possible is made in President Sirleaf’s first 150 days to solidify peace and establish credibility,” a letter to Congress from Liberia Watch, a group of churches, aide groups, and expatriates, states.

Liberia has also retained the lobbying firm BKSH to push for additional U.S. support.

This week, Congress and the administration are certainly rolling out a welcome mat for Johnson Sirleaf, whose schedule befits a head of a much larger state.

In addition to addressing a joint session of Congress today, Johnson Sirleaf will attend a Senate luncheon with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

She then will be feted at a reception hosted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Pelosi (D-Calif.), and then at a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus that afternoon.

Next week, she will have a one-on-one meeting with President Bush.

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