ONE OF THE bloodiest wars of the '90s may be winding down. We refer here not to Kosovo but to West Africa's Sierra Leone. Late in May, Africans, led by Nigeria and helped by President Clinton's envoy for the purpose, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, produced a cease-fire and power-sharing talks. You missed the news? It happened with hardly any of the acclaim that marked the breakthrough in Kosovo.
The war in Sierra Leone seemed endless, unendable, horrible and duplicative of other regional wars; it unfolded in a quarter little known to Americans. Perhaps for such reasons it received only episodic attention. But how then to explain the emergence of Kosovo as a major concern of American policy and a large topic in the news? For Kosovo's war also has seemed endless, unendable, horrible and duplicative, and it also unfolded in a remote quarter.
Jesse Jackson, for one, has been inquiring into this discrepancy. He notes that where the United States is sending $15 million to the West African organization that worked to end the Sierra Leone war, it has made a "down payment" of $13 billion for Kosovo. He does not say, as many in Africa do, that behind the gap lies a question of race. He does say that if American cameras brought home the pictures of Sierra Leone's misery, the American conscience would be touched and the disparities in American treatment of the two countries would narrow.
Over the decades American policy has found compelling national interest, and American media have found plenty of news, in convulsions in nonwhite countries. The American record in providing humanitarian aid to Africans is notable. Still, the traditional Eurocentric quality of American global engagement is plain and becomes even sharper when crisis flowers. Thus did the United States turn a decade's full attention on Bosnia and then Kosovo, even as successive upheavals in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Zaire/Congo and Sierra Leone generally prompted a less ambitious and more selective approach.
The contrast can be explained by circumstances, but that is not good enough. A fair and sustainable policy must tap the energies and resources that ease rather than aggravate the lingering question of why the United States sometimes appears readier to help a distressed white country than a distressed black one.