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National Public Radio Tavis Smiley Show Transcript

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HEADLINE: Reverend Al Sharpton and Cornel West discuss the situation in Liberia



From NPR in Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley.

On today's program, the first in a weeklong series of conversations exploring some of the key issues facing Latinos. Up first today, education. Our regular financial commentator Brooke Stephens has advice on what to do with that nest egg that you've managed to save up. And a conversation with jazz historian and legendary pianist Billy Taylor.

But first...

President GEORGE W. BUSH: US troops will be there to help ECOWAS go in and serve as peacekeepers necessary to create the conditions so that humanitarian aid can go in and help the people in Liberia. And we're deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse. Aid can't get to the people. We're worried about the outbreak of disease. And so our commitment is to enable ECOWAS to go in, and the Pentagon will make it clear over time what that means.

SMILEY: President Bush announced on Friday that US troops are being moved into position off the coast of Liberia to potentially assist relief efforts of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, as intense fighting continues to claim even more lives. At least 14 people were killed yesterday due to a barrage of mortar fire near the US Embassy in Monrovia. The decision by President Bush to move troops closer comes after weeks of pressure from the UN and international relief workers. They have told the White House that a delay in sending peacekeepers makes it impossible to help the victims of the fighting. The Reverend Al Sharpton and our regular commentator, Princeton Professor Cornel West, traveled to Liberia just days ago to get a first-hand look at the situation. They join us now to talk about what they witnessed and the emerging US role in this crisis.

Reverend Sharpton, nice to have you on.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Thank you. Good to be on with you, Tavis.

SMILEY: Dr. West, how are you, sir?

CORNEL WEST (NPR Commentator): Good day, brother. How you doing, my dear Brother Sharpton?

Rev. SHARPTON: How you doing, Dr. West?

WEST: Nice to be with you on that trip, I'll tell you.

SMILEY: Reverend Sharpton, let me talk about that trip and start with you. Over the past month, it seems that this situation in Liberia has gone from bad to worse. Let me start by asking what your purpose was for going to Liberia and what you found when you actually got there.

Rev. SHARPTON: Well, we were in a meeting around, you know, my presidential race with various policy-makers and scholars that have supported us, and one of the things that alarmed us was there really was not a clear indication from the present administration as to what they were going to do in Liberia, and it had not really been raised by other candidates up for the Democratic nomination. I mean, when we talk about the Middle East, when we talk about Iraq, when we talk about other areas of the world, it seems that it becomes a national presidential issue, and Africa sort of was not having the same attention in the discussion.

Ironically, the only two presidential candidates talking about Africa have been George Bush and I. We wanted to go so we could find the facts out for ourselves, and when we went, we ended up in the middle of the peace process itself, because the warring factions, the LURD, the MODEL group and Taylor's governmental representatives in Accra, Ghana, at the peace talks, all were willing to talk to us even when they weren't willing to talk to each other. So what started, Tavis, as a fact-finding mission with Cornel West and others and myself, it ended up our intervening trying to aid the peace process. And even since our return on Friday, I've been on the phone continuing and trying to accommodate some type of peace process.

SMILEY: Dr. West, what'd you see when you got there?

WEST: Well, what we saw with the groups that were unable to come together, but it was only with the presence of Brother Sharpton that facilitated the dialogue. It was really a marvel to see him work. The LURD people had refused to be in the same room as the others, and after meeting with LURD for a number of hours, we were actually able to bring them all together. The problem was in the end that we were able to reach a cease-fire, but the troops on the ground did not want to follow the commands of those who were there in Ghana because they were right there ready for the kill, smelling blood, as it were. And it shows the significant role that black leadership in America can play by putting Africa at the center of US foreign policy when it comes to dealing with not just the stability but also economic development.

SMILEY: Reverend Al, West Africa, Liberia specifically, seems so far away to many Americans. What are we not hearing, not seeing, not reading about, if anything, that you witnessed?

Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I think, first of all, it's a lot closer to us, not only geographically, but closer to us in terms of our environment, than Iraq or Afghanistan, and we're spending $5 billion a month rebuilding those countries, and having a presence there. We have—our businesses have made money out of Liberia, whether it was rubber or timber. Liberia was a strategic location in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, which is why this government was in bed with a brutal dictator named Samuel Doe. We had relationships with Charles Taylor, who's the president now, that George Bush and others are calling to move out. And I agree that Taylor has been guilty of some very egregious acts. So we cannot divorce the fact that there has been a business as well as a military strategic alliance with Liberia and not say that those alliances helped to bring Liberia where it is now, yet we will not have any part in repairing some of the situation that we concurred with that led to the damage in the first place.

SMILEY: And yet, Reverend Al, there are many, indeed we had a guest on this program last week, who believe that the US has absolutely no national interest in Liberia at all.

Rev. SHARPTON: We have a national debt. We've already benefited from Liberia, whether it was the strategic placement, whether it was our businesses from Firestone across the board. And we do have an interest. One, it is in our interest to see stability in West Africa, and Liberia is clearly a priority there. Secondly, it is in our strategic interest to deal with the natural resources of the original continent. You can't do that without dealing with the crises that occur on the continent. We stood by and allowed Rwanda—I went to Rwanda in '94 during the tribal wars. A million people dead. We did nothing. We have stood by and seen the same happen in Zaire and in other parts of the continent. We've stood by and did nothing about slavery in the Sudan. And the Sudan was where we are told bin Laden was hiding out for a while. When we stick our head in the sand, Tavis, we expose our behind to the world.

SMILEY: Dr. West, what do you make of President Bush's decision to put US troops closer to Liberia, not as peacekeepers, but there potentially to assist other peacekeeping troops? What do you make of his decision at this point?

WEST: Well, I think it's still too little too late. I mean, what we heard from the rebel forces as well as the government was that they wanted troops as peacekeepers to stabilize, and you have to make a distinction between an American imperial presence and American humanitarian presence, that the Sharpton delegation was calling for the latter. There has to be some stability, and the stability has to do not only with procuring life and allowing for a certain kind of aid to come through.

But, Tavis, when you talk about Liberia, you're really talking about West Africa. When you talk about West Africa, you're talking about oil. You know, there's billions and billions of tons of oil that's been discovered in West Africa, and the question is gonna be whether it's gonna be an ugly imperial struggle to gain access to that oil and not allowing the Africans to benefit, or whether the Africans are able to use that oil and other natural resources to build up their country with fair trade with the rest of the world. So there's a lot of interest here, and in the present moment there has to be some stabilizing force so that the people of Liberia, the children, the women and so forth—the women's voices were some of the most powerful voices we heard there in the dialogue—that they are taken seriously.

SMILEY: Cornel, as you say, there has to be a stabilizing force. I think of many Americans who I've seen and heard and talked to in the past few days who feel that you're right about that, that there has to be a stabilizing force, but that the US can only stretch its military forces so far. Right now, by my count, off the top of my head, we've got US military forces where? Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Korea. I mean, how far can we stretch our troops?

WEST: Well, it'd be preferable for the UN and ECOWAS troops to be there, but they're moving too slow. People are dying every day. And so the question that you can have a stabilizing force, only need about 500 troops. They got—if they had a riot in LA, Chicago and New York, they'd have 500 troops to make sure the—stabilizing force in the black community. How come they can't be stabilizing force here in Liberia, you know?

SMILEY: What do you think, Reverend Al, about what's going to happen? Now Charles Taylor has said that he would only leave the country—at least the last I've read—suggests that he would only leave the country once US forces arrive in the country. What's going to happen here?

Rev. SHARPTON: I think it's a game between Bush and Taylor that makes no sense. One, if Taylor would leave when they come, why can't he leave now? But the second part of that, which is just as pertinent to me, is that Bush says that we'll come in when Taylor leaves. Well, why do we have to wait for Taylor to leave to come in? And if Taylor said he will leave when we come in, then we should tell Taylor we'll be there at noon. Go ahead and leave. I think that what—Dr. West just raised the point about just needing 500 troops as a stabilizing force to back up ECOWAS and the United Nations. Let's remember, Rumsfeld just deployed last week 3,500 troops to the area. So we already have troops in the area. What would hurt to take 500 troops out of the 3,500 that we've already put in the area, we're already paying for them to be in the area, we're already housing them and feeding them in the area? Why, other than some kind of unexplainable stubbornness, would we have them close and not send a part of them on in and resolve the problem and create the climate where Taylor would leave since they're already there?

SMILEY: I got less than a minute here to go, Reverend Al. Gonna give you the last word here. What specifically do you say to African-Americans who are watching and reading and hearing about what's happening in Liberia, since you are, in fact, running for the White House?

Rev. SHARPTON: I think that our responsibility is as any when they relate to their homeland. This is not only our homeland. They have been this nation's partners. We ought to put pressure on our congresspeople, our senators and the White House to move in. If our young people can be sent to shores that have nothing to do with us, clearly they can be sent as peacekeeping forces where all the warring factions are asking us to come. We're not going into a situation that's hostile. We're going in a situation that everybody's saying, 'Please come help.' Why not? And the answer to me is when it seems like it's our color, there's always a different standard.

SMILEY: Reverend Al Sharpton is the founder of the National Action Network and a candidate, of course, for the Democratic presidential nomination. And Professor Cornel West is a professor of religion at Princeton and, of course, as you know, a regular commentator on this program.

Reverend Al, Dr. West, nice to talk to both of you.

Rev. SHARPTON: Thank you.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio ®. All rights reserved.

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