The news reports this week about the fighting in Liberia and the evacuation of Americansand others there brought to mind Yogi Berra's line: "It's like déjà vu, all over again." Liberia's nightmare of war has repeated itself several times since 1990, but this latest version has a significance that goes beyond this one country's particular tragedy.
The current carnage is the latest battle in a civil war that began on Christmas Eve 1989. On that day, a rebel force led by Charles Taylor launched an attack from neighboring Guinea in an attempt to overthrow President Samuel Doe.
At first it seemed like just another minor incident, but by the middle of 1990, Mr. Taylor's motley collection of fighters was closing in on the capital, Monrovia. I, as acting ambassador, and the rest of the embassy staff organized the evacuation of hundreds of Americans and thousands of others. At first, they left by charter aircraft and then, when that became impossible, with the help of the US Navy and Marines.
Although Mr. Doe was killed a couple of months later, the fighting has continued on and off ever since. In 1996, Monrovia was threatened again and the US Embassy organized another evacuation. The US military was called upon once more to carry out the operation. A year later, elections were held and Taylor won, but only because Liberians knew he would continue the war if he did not.
Taylor's presidency, however, did not bring peace. While Doe would have been on any short list of the world's most corrupt, incompetent, and ruthless presidents, Taylor was worse.
There are now two rebel factions trying to oust him. They control most of the country and have once again brought killing to the streets of Monrovia. Another evacuation has been ordered by the American Embassy, but this time those fleeing the war are being protected by French troops, and flown in French helicopters out to a French landing ship.
The immediate lesson that could be drawn is that even the world's only superpower can't be everywhere at the same time and still needs allies. Our politicians and supposed statesmen who have spent recent months thinking up new ways to insult the French for not rubber-stamping the invasion plans for Iraq might ponder that fact.
The second lesson is that the "moral clarity"that administration spokesmen like to proclaim as a feature of their foreign policy is largely a fraud. Where is the moral clarity when it comes to Africa? Taylor, who has been indicted for war crimes by an international court, has been ignored, except for some efforts to support sanctions imposed by the UN. Taylor is responsible not just for the continued destruction of Liberia, but for spreading instability and strife to all his neighbors - Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast.
Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have had to flee their homes, and the cost to the American taxpayer of dealing with the various humanitarian disasters created by his actions easily tops $1 billion dollars.
Liberia is not the only African civil war Washington has done little to stop. While the Bush administration points to mass graves in Iraq as yet another justification for its invasion, it has done little to deal with the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 3 million people have died. The administration is engaged in efforts to find peace in Sudan, but that is because a number of Christian groups, a core constituency of the Bush administration, care about that conflict because they see it as an assault by Muslims in the north against Christians in the south.
So is the moral clarity of the current regime in Washington a pillar of its policy or a device used selectively to sell a particular strategy to the public? If morality is supposedly the basis of foreign policy, it should be applied consistently and by people who are themselves consistently moral.
It seems this administration prizes loyalty more than integrity. And morality, like weapons of mass destruction, is an excuse that is used when needed and ignored when it is not.
• Dennis Jett, dean of the International Center at the University of Florida, was US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and deputy ambassador in Liberia in 1989-91.