Simon JenkinsStuck in the mire of the white man's burden
May 10 2000
Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
On Monday the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said that Britain would "not abandon its commitments to Sierra Leone". A spearhead battalion of 250 paratroops had already secured the airport outside the capital of Freetown to evacuate 500 British citizens. The paratroops will also offer support to the apparently helpless 8,000-strong United Nations force on the ground. Seven British warships, one armed with Harrier jets, are on the way to the area. Mr Cook's language and past actions suggest that they will stay a long time. He is the maestro of mission creep.
Mr Cook and his boss, Tony Blair, have long cut a dash as Kipling's new imperialists. The baggage changes. Humanitarianism and democracy are in the soldier's knapsack, rather than the Bible. The talk is now of human rights and the credibility of the United Nations. Yet the burden is still a burden. The white man is still the intervener, the boss. And in Sierra Leone, as in Somalia and Rwanda, local warriors make passable proxies for "new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child".
Hearing this week's news from West Africa, some might think that Britain's sole interest is to extract its nationals from a war-torn land. A unit of troops flies in, secures the airport, sets up a reception centre and evacuates the relevant passport- holders to a neighbouring safe haven. There is risk. Those who dabble in African diamonds have always accepted risk. Not to mince words, they should be grateful that the British taxpayer is prepared to bail them out when the going gets hot.
Yet that is only front-of-stage. Britain is not going to Sierra Leone merely to evacuate its nationals. It is going there to show it cares about Africa, that wherever democracy is under threat and human lives are being lost, "something must be done". Why else has the carrier, HMS Illustrious, been diverted from duty? Why are 550 Marines setting sail this week from Marseilles aboard the helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, as part of a full "Amphibious Ready Group", complete with the frigate, HMS Chatham, two Royal Fleet Auxiliary landing ships and a replenishment ship. Already four Chinooks are in theatre, alongside eight C130 Hercules. Are they not enough? There are only 500 Britons in Sierra Leone. Many of those interviewed seem prepared to sit out the latest round of the local mayhem, which has been continuous for almost a decade. What is going on?
The doctrine of overwhelming commitment is well-established in military circles, demonstrated in the Gulf War by General Colin Powell. It states that you always send more force than you are likely to need. Since politicians are as scared of casualties as are generals, and since the public never minds spending money on a shooting war, more force is duly sent. But is there no limit? "Overwhelming commitment" is always a temptation to overcommitment. Media attention goads escalation. Entry becomes ever easier, extrication ever harder. In Sierra Leone, as in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, British policy knows no exit strategy.
Sierra Leone, like Somalia, is the archetypal road to hell that is paved with good intentions. The wealth of diamonds and aid (£60 million from Britain alone in four years) has showered money on any who could get their hands on it. Civil war, spilling over from Liberia, is endemic. The only chance of stability has appeared to come from Western mining interests prepared to work with the local mafias and guarded by mercenaries. This was the realpolitik "Sandline" policy, which crushed the RUF rebellion in 1998 and caused the "ethical" Mr Cook such angst. If ever there was a case for leaving Africa's murky political economy alone, it is Sierra Leone. As Stephen Ellis wrote in yesterday's Times, it has "no realistic chance of seeing a decent government in the foreseeable future".
Britain engineered the 1998 reinstatement of the corrupt President Kabbah. Yet it also engineered the readmission to partial power of the blood-crazed rebel leader, Foday Sankoh. (Had he been white, Mr Cook would surely have sent him to The Hague for prosecution.) Instead his punishment was to be handed back control of the diamond mines and some £150 million a year to rebuild his private army. Britain was party to dispatching 11,000 African and other UN troops to "keep the peace".
Wise counsel might have advised the UN to be cautious. After shambles in Congo, Somalia, Angola, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone itself, peacekeeping in Africa should be attempted with extreme delicacy. Instead, hundreds of ill-trained Zambians were thrown into the midst of a fast-reviving civil war. Their weapons, even their clothes, were seized by the rebels and the soldiers taken hostage. This was the largest such UN operation in the world and has become the "peace- keeping" equivalent of Gallipoli. Presumably Mr Cook's objective is to save the UN soldiers from their self-inflicted fate. Heroic British paratroops will shepherd them to safety under the British flag. Mr Cook will walk tall. Then what? Mr Cook promised yesterday morning that British soldiers were not in Sierra Leone as "combat troops alongside the UN". What is a troop if not a combat troop when in the midst of combat? Thus did Douglas Hurd promise that British soldiers in Bosnia were "only to escort aid convoys". They would never get "bogged down". Mr Cook likewise promised that British troops in Kosovo were to "stop ethnic cleansing". Foreign Secretaries making such pledges know that they are probably lying, but hope something will turn up to get them off the hook.
The fact must be that British soldiers are going to Sierra Leone to do more than evacuate civilians. "The mere presence of British forces may help to deter the rebels from advancing on Freetown," says Mr Cook. The troops are also to secure UN premises in Freetown and guard the main hotel, the Mamma Yoko. This hotel is full of the world's media. Outside, Sierra Leoneans are in the habit of rioting, shooting and chopping off each other's arms. For years this has been of little concern to the world. But in full view of the cameras, women and children will scream for "something to be done". To such calls, Mr Cook has never failed to respond. Within ten days he will have a huge tonnage of naval hardware bobbing offshore. He will have the world's best-trained infantry on the streets, and Harrier jets screaming overhead. What else can soldiers do but get involved? What does Mr Cook expect? Why else is he sending so many soldiers to such a hellhole?
I do not think Mr Cook or his colleagues are dishonest in telling the British people one thing - in Iraq or Kosovo or Sierra Leone - then doing something else. Politicians always take the line of least resistance. It starts with rhetoric, a flourish of "unacceptables", "intolerables" and "humanitarian outrages". Troops are alerted, pledged and then sent. They are accompanied by a heavy press contingent, eager for action. Mr Cook finds himself at summit conferences, in the spotlight, on television. Ultimatums are made. Critics of intervention are dismissed as cynics. Bombs are loaded. It all gets rather exciting. Suddenly Britain is involved in a war in which its interests are minimal and nobody has the foggiest idea how to stop. Such intervention may do some good while it lasts, as did the American presence in Somalia. It rarely does good after it has gone. And go it one day must. Even this British Government does not plan to rule the world.
Mr Cook is merely playing with imperialism. He is at best half-hearted in fighting Kipling's "savage wars of peace". But he should remember that Kipling's poem was not a celebration of such adventure. Kipling had seen war. He wrote his poem to warn America, which had just seized Spain's Pacific colonies, what imperialism really involved. It started in glory. It ended with entrapment, ingratitude, dead bodies and "the hate of those ye guard". We have no business in Sierra Leone except to extract those Britons who want to leave.