The Case for Caring Now

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf addressing Congress last week.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf addressing Congress last week. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Fred Hiatt
Monday, March 20, 2006

On one of her visits to her native Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told a joint session of Congress last week, she was placed in a jail cell with 15 men. "All of them were executed a few hours later," she said. "Only the intervention of a single soldier spared me from rape."

Now Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, is the newly elected president of her unhappy African country, and if you think she was trying to seize Congress's attention with that anecdote of 20 years past, you are no doubt correct.

After all, the world is full of unhappy countries that have won sympathy here, and then been rapidly discarded. Think Haiti, for example, or Afghanistan, which was of interest to Ronald Reagan, forgotten by George H.W. Bush, neglected by Bill Clinton and then (not coincidentally) a crisis again.

Now Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first female elected leader, is enjoying her moment of fame and good feeling. Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice attended her inauguration in January, Congress greeted her as a hero last week, President Bush will receive her tomorrow. After a quarter-century of coups, dictators and civil wars in Liberia, this is a moment of restored democracy and hope.

Do not assume, however, that Johnson-Sirleaf therefore will stoop to unseemly flattery or diplomatic spin. After all her years of exile, harassment, surveillance and prison, with all the misery waiting for her back home, she seems to have no time for that.

As in: When she is asked during a visit to The Post how she will plead her case for aid to Bush, given draining U.S. commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan, she replies, "For the reason you said -- he needs a success. Billions are being spent on Iraq, billions are being spent on Afghanistan -- and it will take a fraction of those billions to make Liberia a success story.

"I think he needs one, and we're going to give him an opportunity to have one."

It's not that Johnson-Sirleaf, stately in traditional dress, comes across as ungrateful. In her address to Congress, she thanked the United States for its help in brokering an end to Liberia's vicious civil war and for sending money to get the country going again.

But, she says, "we still have problems. I can't tell you we're out of the woods."

Any Western leader might regard that as an astonishing understatement. Johnson-Sirleaf works out of a dilapidated palace that, like the rest of her country, depends on generators for electricity.

"We have a city that's dark," she says. "We have a city where many young children don't know that water comes out of a tap." At night, children gather on street corners to do their homework by the spillover from private floodlights, since they have no light at home. Many others do no homework because they can't afford pencils, or can't attend school at all.

Civil war drove most of the country's 3.5 million people from their homes. Some 45 percent of the population is 14 or younger; many of those children were press-ganged into armies and know no other life. Life expectancy is 42.5 years. Unemployment is 80 to 85 percent. Of every 1,000 children born, 132 die in infancy.

Why should the United States care? The standard answer of traditional historical ties, based on the freed American slaves who founded Liberia, may have worn thin after all these years. But there are two others.

One is that helping is cheaper in the long run than the alternative. When conditions in a country become too atrocious to bear -- when drug-addled marauders take to chopping off the hands of children who get in their way, as in Liberia's neighbor Sierra Leone -- public opinion may (at least some of the time) force the United States, Britain or the United Nations to intervene. By the time that demand comes, the destruction is so complete -- in Liberia, roads, hospitals, water pipes, everything has crumbled -- that repair is far more difficult and expensive.

The second is Johnson-Sirleaf herself: Harvard-trained economist, former World Bank and U.N. official, democrat. She espouses an anti-corruption, socially inclusive vision that aid officials can only dream of finding in most poor countries. Courageously, for he still has many followers, she has asked that former dictator Charles Taylor, now in Nigeria, stand trial for his crimes.

When her hour at The Post is over, she waves off the usual pleasantries and asks: What will emerge from this interview? What will Liberia get out of it? And suddenly "grandmotherly," the adjective you often hear applied to her, reminds you less of the woman who sneaked you an extra cookie when your mother wasn't looking and more of having your hands checked for cleanliness before being seated at the Sunday dinner table.

Well, Madam President, I'm afraid this column is the best I can do. I hope you get more out of President Bush tomorrow.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company