Bush Should Order U.S. Forces to Help Keep Peace in Liberia

Posted June 25, 2003 at 2:41pm

President Bush is making an “I care” trip to Africa early next month, but a real test of his concern will be the level of U.S. involvement in making peace in Liberia, America’s only “colony” in Africa. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The French have stood up to the plate in Cote d’Ivoire” (Ivory Coast) by sending in 3,000 troops, said one U.S. official, and Britain has sent 700 soldiers to keep the peace in neighboring Sierra Leone.

“The question is,” this official said, “is the Pentagon going to step up to the plate? Is the president going to tell the Pentagon to step up to the plate? Contingency plans have been drawn up, but it isn’t decided whether we’ll pull the trigger. The president’s trip will force the issue.”

Bush is scheduled to visit five African nations from July 7 to 12, emphasizing his $15 billion AIDS initiative, a $9 billion “Millennium Challenge” aid program to encourage economic and political reform, U.S.-African trade relations, and “conflict resolution” for the continent’s several vicious wars.

Bush’s first stop is in Senegal, in West Africa, the launching point for slave trade to America — and also the place where he’d be likely to announce any measures to bring peace to nearby Liberia.

Administration officials say the State Department is pushing for the U.S. military to be involved in a “stabilization force” for the civil war-ravaged nation, but the Pentagon opposes it, evidently fearing loss of American lives in an “unimportant” place.

As an alternative, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has talked about a U.S. program to train foreign soldiers to act as “constabularies” in Africa and elsewhere, thereby avoiding the need for American forces.

On June 19, Rumsfeld told the group Business Executives for National Security, “I think it would be a good idea if our country provided some leadership for training other countries’ citizens who would like to participate in peacekeeping … and peace making so that we have a ready cadre of people who are trained, equipped and organized and have communications so that they can work with each other.”

That’s a worthwhile idea, but it wouldn’t be set up in time to do any good in Liberia, which is at a crisis stage right now.

A shaky cease-fire is in effect in Liberia after a savage, decade-long regional war unleashed by President Charles Taylor, who is now supposed to leave office — but may not.

The case for U.S. involvement is that Liberia was established by freed American slaves. Its capital, Monrovia, is named after the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe. During the Cold War, Liberia was a staunch U.S. ally, and many of its elite citizens have been educated in the United States.

Moreover, Taylor is a protégé of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and has ties to al Qaeda, which uses Taylor’s diamond- smuggling operations to launder money.

The U.S. should have intervened when Taylor seized power in 1990, but has more or less stood by watching as he wreaked havoc in his own country and neighboring Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where his allies spread terror by hacking off the limbs of innocent civilians.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and thousands more have been raped, maimed and forced to flee their homes.

The neighboring countries sponsored rebel forces to counter Taylor — some of them guilty of atrocities equal to his — and finally forced him to accept a cease-fire this month. He was recently indicted as a war criminal, but his whereabouts are unknown.

If the cease-fire breaks down — there were reports of renewed fighting this week — one administration official said that “the spiral back to ‘Heart of Darkness’ could develop quickly.”

The situation cries out for an international force to step in to keep the peace, provide stability while an interim government takes charge, and help the new government disarm Taylor’s forces and the rebel groups.

Some U.S. contingency plans envision American troops actually joining in the stabilization force, but officials say that — “realistically,” given Pentagon objections — the likeliest U.S. involvement will be to give airlift, logistical and communications support to an international force.

That force could either be an extension of the 13,000-member United Nations deployment in Sierra Leone or the less-effective Economic Community of West Africa force running peacekeeping operations in Ivory Coast.

Administration officials estimate that, if the Liberian cease-fire holds, it would take no more than 3,000 to 5,000 outside troops to keep the peace — far fewer than would be needed to stop the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast country where 3 million people have died in another regional war.

During Bush’s visits to South Africa and Nigeria, administration officials say he hopes to enlist Africa’s two biggest powers to set up a peace process for Congo.

Unlike Congo — or Rwanda, where the Clinton administration and the world community allowed 800,000 people to be killed in genocidal attacks in 1994 — Liberia has a democratic tradition and a middle class capable of managing a stable government.

Bush is definitely showing concern for Africa — by going there and by advancing his AIDS and economic initiatives. But as an administration official said, “How serious can we be about Africa if we don’t help our only colony?”