Clinton Bolsters Liberia's Embattled President

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Glenna Gordon / AFP / Getty

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (L) after visiting the Liberian police training camp near Monrovia on August 13, 2009.

A few years ago, the hour-long drive between Liberia's main airport and the center of the capital Monrovia was both dangerous and terrifying. Even after the end of the civil war in 2003, the road was insecure and pockmarked with potholes. But when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drove into Monrovia through the rain this morning she did so over new tarmac and with no threat of attack. Infrastructure and security are the foundations on which Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wants to rebuild her country.

Clinton, who is nearing the end of her 11-day, seven-country trip around Africa, praised all that Johnson Sirleaf has accomplished, and deftly dodged repeated media inquires about the U.S. position on a recent report that publicly sanctions the President and recommends she not serve in government for the next 30 years because of her early association with warlord Charles Taylor, now on trial for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. On several occasions, Clinton made reference to the fact that many in today's Liberian government played dubious roles during the war. While addressing the legislature, she said, "I know some of you in this chamber bore arms against each other."

In a country so small during a war that lasted for so many years, everyone's hands seem dirty. By pointing out the past lives of other Liberian politicians, and saying that Washington completely supports the current administration, Clinton implicitly discounted the report, produced by Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that sanctioned President Johnson Sirleaf and others.

In many ways, Liberia is a predictable stop on Clinton's itinerary. Liberia has always had closer ties to America than other African countries, and with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female elected head of state in the continent, it's not surprising Liberia was in Clinton's Africa tour of hotspots like Eastern Congo and strategic partners like to oil-rich Nigeria and Angola. Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the early 1800s under a corporation called the American Colonization Society. The newcomers set up a social hierarchy similar to the plantation system they were familiar with in the American south. The Americos, as they are still called, became Liberia's elite and controlled government and resources. Tensions between the Americos and the indigenous people of Liberia are often cited as one the causes of Liberia's gruesome civil war.

During the war years, which lasted from 1989 until 2003, more than a third of Liberia's small population was displaced, a quarter of a million died, and countless women and men were victims of unthinkable cruelty. Many think that President Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, can change the tide and take Liberia from post-conflict to development. She's often praised for her strong stand on corruption and her commitment to moving Liberia forward on the long road from conflict to recovery.

But lately, even die-hard supporters are questioning if the President is all she says she is. Corruption is rampant, and while infrastructure is being slowly rebuilt, residents of Monrovia who have been promised municipal electricity continue to wait with baited breath. Clinton's visit focused on the present and on progress. At a Police Training Academy on the outskirts of Monrovia, she said, "In the past, some elements of Liberia's police force betrayed public trust. For too long the police undermined the rule of law, today you must uphold it."

The American government has committed $17 million towards training Liberia's police force, just a small portion of the over $2 billion the U.S. Government has spent in Liberia since 2003, the highest number of aid dollars spent per capita anywhere in the world. Clinton and President Johnson Sirleaf's camaraderie is an indication that U.S. support of Liberia will continue. At a lunch event, Clinton even promised President Johnson Sirleaf she would soon read her recent memoir, This Child Will Be Great.