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Liberia: Bush Set For Visit To Africa As Crisis Looms

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush is set to leave on his first trip to Africa on 7 July under intense pressure from the international community to send U.S. troops to help restore peace in war-torn Liberia.

Washington, 4 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush, weighing options for intervening in Liberia, is set next week to visit Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, and Nigeria during a five-day swing through Africa.

It is only the second time an American president has visited Africa in his first term in office.

Bush has become increasingly active on African issues and has unveiled a $15 billion plan to combat AIDS on the continent and led efforts to boost assistance to poor countries that show good governance.

Nonetheless, the president's swift reaction to international calls for American engagement Liberia -- a West African country founded by freed U.S. slaves more than 150 years ago -- has surprised some critics who recall Bush's election campaign in 2000.

John Shattuck, an expert on humanitarian intervention, is a former senior U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war. A former ambassador to the Czech Republic, Shattuck told RFE/RL, "I think the issue of humanitarian intervention, and the issue of human rights wars that are plaguing the world and have been ever since the end of the Cold War, has finally gotten through to the Bush administration. I think their experience in Iraq certainly has gotten them to pay more attention to what it is that President Bush was quite skeptical about when he campaigned for office in 2000."

Candidate Bush heavily criticized the administration of former President Bill Clinton for undertaking what he suggested where inessential humanitarian interventions in places like Somalia and Haiti. Bush vowed only to engage American power in places of vital national interest.

Liberia would not seem to fit that bill.

But national security adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested at a White House briefing yesterday that Bush's thinking on humanitarian interventions has evolved, and that Washington also has interests in promoting stability in West Africa.

"There is a humanitarian situation there that needs to be dealt with," said Rice. "And I think that we've also recognized since 9/11 [the attacks of 11 September 2001] about permitting conditions in failed states to create conditions in which there is so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism."

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than one-third of Liberia's 3 million people have been displaced during the past decade of civil war.

Hundreds were killed in street fighting last month between rebels that control most of the country and forces loyal to President Charles Taylor.

A fragile cease-fire is now in place and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- along with France and several West African nations -- have urged Washington to lead an international force of peacekeepers to make the truce last.

Liberians have also pleaded with Washington to rescue them. In the capital, Monrovia, named after U.S. President James Monroe, protesters yesterday called for American intervention and the abdication of Taylor.

"We want peace! No more [Liberian President Charles] Taylor!" Bush has demanded that Taylor leave the country as the first step to restoring peace and stability. Nigeria has offered him asylum, but the issue is complicated by the fact that he is wanted for war crimes by a UN-backed court in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom Bush has asked to work with Annan to devise a strategy for Liberia, again yesterday called on Taylor to step aside.

"We believe stability will only come to [Liberia] with the departure of President [Charles] Taylor," he said. " In some of the earlier negotiations that led to the cease-fire, he agreed that would be an appropriate step to take and we hope it's a step that he will take at the appropriate time."

Rice said that regardless of Bush's campaign stance on humanitarian intervention, the president has long believed that America must never allow a return of the kind of violence that occurred in 1994 in Rwanda, when the world community stood by as tribal blood-letting claimed 800,000 lives in some 100 days.

Shattuck, who recently published a book called "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response," says Rwanda helped change the thinking worldwide on humanitarian intervention. Without that disaster, he believes the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the possible action in Liberia would have been hard to imagine.

"Rwanda was a devastating failure, the worst human rights failure in the world since the second World War and in some ways even worse because there was no response. And I think as a result, the United Nations [and] many individual countries including the United States have really had to rethink the whole concept of intervening to rescue civilians under circumstances like this and have come to the conclusion that under very carefully defined criteria, that humanitarian intervention is appropriate."

U.S. military officials have indicated that they are drawing up various contingency plans for Liberia, ranging from a 50-strong small Marine force to protect the U.S. embassy to a contingent of up to 2,000 troops that could lead a multinational force of peacekeepers.

After stability is restored, U.S. officials say American forces would likely leave the country and leave other African nations in charge of any further peacekeeping.

American forces are already stretched thin, with some 10,000 in and around Afghanistan and 150,000 in Iraq. Some 37,000 troops are based in South Korea.

Bush is due to arrive on 8 July in Senegal, where Rice said he will give a speech about America's ties to Africa.

"Slavery was, of course, America's birth defect," she said. "And we've been trying to deal with the consequences of it ever since and to bring about reconciliation ever since. The president is going to have a chance [in Senegal] to talk about that experience, but also to look forward to the tremendous contributions by African-Americans to this country."

From Senegal, Bush travels to South Africa and Botswana. He will visit AIDS patients and people who care for them when he visits Uganda and Nigeria at the end of the week.

Rice said that by visiting those five countries, Bush hopes to shine a light on African nations that are making real efforts to improve the lives of their people. But she acknowledged that the crisis in Liberia is likely to get most of the attention.

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