Will Biden address Liberia’s democratic decline?

By Michael Rubin

The Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” is now a month past.

US President, Joe Biden and Liberian President, George Weah

At the time, some analysts questioned whether the moral message of excluding dictatorships such as Turkey or Singapore was worth the price of antagonizing them as partners. Both Democrats and Republicans who prioritize democracy applauded President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts.

A more trenchant criticism focused on the choices Blinken made: Why Pakistan (which declined to attend) but not Bangladesh? Why Taiwan but not Somaliland? Poland but not equally problematic Hungary?

Unfortunately, there is a cost to including leaders more for diplomatic expediency than their commitment to democracy. Just as the Nobel Peace Prize convinced Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that he could act with impunity against ethnic Tigrayans, offering an imprimatur of democracy led some dictators to embrace the illusion of democracy so that they could act with impunity.

Certainly, this has been the case with Liberia’s President George Weah.

Liberia might not ordinarily receive widespread attention in the U.S., but the West African country is linked intimately to America: Two centuries ago, freed American slaves founded Liberia as a colony and a refuge. In 1847, the country won its independence and became one of Africa’s oldest independent countries. Recent history has not been kind. Between 1989 and 2003, Liberia suffered two bloody civil wars in which a quarter-million people in total perished.

The award of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and feminist activist Leymah Gbowee celebrated the country’s emergence from conflict and its return to democracy. Its democracy, however, is fragile. In 2018, George Weah succeeded Sirleaf and began unraveling the foundation of Liberia’s democracy. He backtracked on a commitment to send war criminals to the International Criminal Court, and, according to a Global Magnitsky Act filing, looted perhaps $155 million dollars from government coffers.

Under such circumstances, Blinken’s invite of Weah was curious. In hindsight, after Weah’s attendance at the democracy summit, it was disastrous, because Weah now seeks to consolidate dictatorship. In recent days, he has sought to leverage Liberia’s corrupt judiciary against his chief opponent, philanthropist and former Coca-Cola executive Alexander Cummings.

If Biden truly cares about democracy, now is the time to speak out. To remain silent after inviting Weah to the democracy summit and posing with him in Glasgow is to be complicit in the unraveling of democracy in West Africa.

Two decades ago, President George W. Bush and late Secretary of State Colin Powell erred by not calling out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on democracy. The results of that negligence reverberate to this day. Biden and Blinken now face a similar test.

Unfortunately, so far, they are wanting.

Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

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