PEOPLE WHO TRAVEL in certain countries, especially those who travel alone and carry notebooks or cameras, get used to the Question. Usually it's asked in jest, or as a taunt, with a jabbing finger: "CIA?" Just once I heard it asked not mockingly or threateningly but plaintively, by 300 desperate would-be freedom fighters in a sweltering jungle camp. It was the moment that made an interventionist of me, at least by inclination. And now the news from Iraq and Liberia brings the Question, and all the desperation behind it, back to mind.
It was early 1989 in yet another afflicted country, Burma, before its junta rebranded it Myanmar. Five months earlier, tens of thousands of students and ordinary Burmese had hit the streets, demanding democracy. The army mowed many down and clamped an even more repressive regime on the rest. Thousands fled. Some made it across the Thai border; 263 made it to this jungle clearing, near an outpost of the Free State of Kawthoolei, which ethnic Karen rebels had been fighting for 40 years to establish. The Christian Karens had done what they could with their own limited means for these Buddhist fugitives. The students drilled, fought malaria, and waited for the army, with three old rifles and one huge rice pot between them. When the big-shot American reporter arrived, they turned out in their cheap camos and plastic boots and marched gamely; one collapsed from fever or hunger. Then they gathered around and peppered me with questions, including a new variation on the Question: "Why won't the CIA send us guns to fight the army? We will die here. Please tell the CIA to come help us."
How do you tell them your government is too busy helping thugs in Central America and a thug named Saddam Hussein deal similarly with their enemies? And that Burma, where it had little history, influence, or direct culpability, was the easiest sort of place for it to do nothing?
NOW, OF COURSE, the situation is different: The current Bush administration has been busy trying to kill Saddam Hussein, so busy it's forgotten El Salvador and almost every other place. But still the same question keeps popping up, this time even more urgently, from a place where the United States has a long, long history. Just about everyone in Liberia seemed to want the United States to send troops to uphold a peace agreement reached after a decade of ghastly civil war. I'll think about it, Bush the Younger said, since he was obliged to say something during his photo-op tour of Africa. Translation: I'll wait till Liberia's 15 minutes of attention passes, then I can forget about it. Bush promptly got into a symbiotic two-step with Charles Taylor, Liberia's U.S.- educated president and leading fomenter of mayhem. I'll go when the Americans arrive, said Taylor; we'll go in when Taylor leaves, said Bush. And what do you know, no one goes anywhere. The rebels and Taylor's regime gave up waiting and started shooting again. The victims' bodies were laid out by the U.S. Embassyan image of American fecklessness and betrayal that might prove as enduring as the flight from the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975.
You know those obnoxious house cats that spurn all who try to pet them and home in on the cat hater in the room? The neocons pined to storm Iraq, which few Iraqis wanted. And they hated Clinton's interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, which merely proposed to protect people, not pursue evildoers (and which panned out pretty well). However cocky they might be about changing regimes and redrawing maps, they shirk humanitarian and peacekeeping missions because of one debacle, Somalia 1993, the mission Bush Sr. bequeathed to Clinton. But it wasn't guarding food relief that brought the Black Hawk down. It was expanding into a manhunt for the strongman AdidColin Powell's bequest to Clinton.
NOT THAT CLINTON did any more to stop the bleeding in Africa. Hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda on Clinton's watch; he and Bush I both let Liberia implode, sending Marines only to rescue Americans. No special favors for the nation that Americans created as a havenor dumping groundfor freed slaves who had no place in free America. Such "freedom colonies," where the freed slaves' descendants lord it over native groups, haven't turned out well; look at bloody Sierra Leone, which Britain created for its ex-slaves. But the Brits did return and stop the carnage that had spread there from Liberia. So did the French in their ex-colony C�d'Ivoire. Of course, you can't expect Yanks to take the same chances as those fearless Frogs.
But now Bush looks stuck with walking his humanitarian talk and going into Liberia. That surely wasn't what Condi Rice's National Security Strategy opus intended when it declared everything everywhere to be America's legitimate security concern, and all measures fair if necessary. But if he keeps waffling and the bodies keep piling up, the whole neo-imperial project looks hollow and ridiculous, no matter how many cards they flip in Iraq.
As for Burma's students and Karens, they finally got steamrolled by their country's thugs. But I wonder if they're perking up now, and popping the Question again.