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U.S.: Bush Delay On Liberia -- Genuine Concern Or Domestic Politics?

  • Andrew Tully

The United States has yet to announce whether it will send peacekeeping forces to Liberia. RFE/RL has talked to analysts in Washington about the pros and cons of the issue and files this report.

Washington, 24 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It has been nearly two weeks since U.S. President George W. Bush concluded his trip to Africa, and he has yet to decide whether to send even a small military contingent to lead peacekeeping forces in war-wracked Liberia.

In just the past few days, rebels fighting to overthrow Charles Taylor, the discredited president of the West African nation, have mounted a new assault on Monrovia, and hundreds of people -- most of them civilians -- have died in indiscriminate shelling of the capital.

Liberians angry at Bush's apparent indecision have been piling up bodies of slain civilians outside the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in protest.

News reports in Washington say the Bush administration remains deeply divided on the issue. Some Bush aides are said to argue that the United States cannot ignore the humanitarian crisis in Liberia, especially given the countries' shared history: Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed U.S. slaves, and its people look to America as something of a guarantor.

Others in the U.S. government argue that the U.S. military is already too busy in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq, and that deploying even as few as 2,000 troops to Liberia would not be as simple as it sounds.

Further, they contend that Washington cannot act unilaterally in deploying peacekeepers. This according to Simon Serfaty, a widely published foreign-policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research center in Washington.

Serfaty told RFE/RL that Bush cannot act until he knows what African leaders plan to do, including Taylor himself. "We're waiting for two things. We're waiting for President Taylor to leave Monrovia. President Taylor is saying, 'Look, I still want to leave, but I will not leave until the peacekeeping forces have arrived.' That peacekeeping force -- second -- is highly dependent on the availability of African forces that are still being organized. And those two elements, I think, are standing in the way of a quicker deployment of U.S. forces," Serfaty said.

Serfaty said the U.S. military has gained strength after the cuts in Pentagon spending during the administration of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton. But he said that even so, it should not be expected to act alone, or take the majority of the responsibility, in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps Liberia as well.

Yesterday, the Economic Community of West African States announced it can send as many as 1,300 Nigerian peacekeeping troops to Liberia beginning as early as next week. The move, which came at the urging of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, may pave the way for a firm U.S. commitment of peacekeeping troops.

But Serfaty said the United States is stretched thin militarily and must seriously consider the strains of such a commitment. He said it is not enough to have partners in what Bush has called "coalitions of the willing." He said these partners also must be able to make significant peacekeeping contributions along with the Americans.

"When we [the United States] are in a position to enlarge those coalitions of the willing into coalitions of the willing and the capable, then we will be able to relieve some of the U.S. forces currently committed. We've done that in Afghanistan, we have done that to an extent in Kosovo. We now need to do it in Iraq," Serfaty said.

Until that is possible, Serfaty said, sending even a small contingent of troops to Liberia could put an intolerable strain on U.S. Defense Department resources.

Further, Serfaty said there are justifiable fears in the Pentagon that a military mission in Liberia could turn out much like the United States' last humanitarian effort in Africa -- Somalia, which turned into a disaster. "I think that this is not a small decision," he said. "It's not just a matter of sending a few hundred forces and everything will be fine. It is a commitment that may prove to be a significant entanglement. What did happen, probably, is that he [Bush] might have spoken too quickly by suggesting that forces were on their way when, in fact, they were not."

Serfaty said he believes that Bush was genuinely moved by the humanitarian crisis in Liberia. Another analyst, Arthur Helton of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, agrees. But Helton dismisses arguments that Bush's decision is difficult, and said the United States is losing prestige every day that it fails to act.

"The administration has wasted elements of an opportunity to garner a lot of goodwill. One would have expected this announcement during, or in connection with, the president's trip to Africa. Now there's sort of hand-wringing and debates within the administration, with the Pentagon sort of worried about deployment. But frankly, if the political decision were made and the terms of reference made clear, it would be a fairly easy exercise," Helton said.

According to Helton, the debate within the Bush administration does not involve whether the U.S. military is capable of intervening effectively in Liberia, but whether the U.S. military should be used for such missions at all. He notes that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly stated that the U.S. armed forces are meant to fight wars, and nothing else.

Helton, who just returned from his own trip to Africa, points to the anger recently displayed by Liberians at Bush's slow action. He said that if the U.S. president does not decide soon, he may permanently lose the faith of not only Liberians, but other Africans whom he so recently courted. "We're at risk of alienating the Liberians and at risk of losing the trust of African leaders and the peoples of Africa in connection with the Bush visit. If something is not done quickly and action not taken decisively, then I think we will realize those risks and lose those elements of support and goodwill," he said.

When he was campaigning for president in 2000, Bush was explicit about his foreign policy regarding Africa. He said the continent was a low priority for him because it did not fit into America's national interest.

Bush's recent trip to Africa showed that he has changed his attitude, but Helton said he believes some members of his administration still cling to the old Bush approach. "I think that reflects the thinking of some foreign-policy realists and hard-eyed analysts who are in the administration. I think Bush is touched by the human dilemma, and I think that's why the American people will insist on some form of involvement ultimately. But I think these are times when the national interest is not so easily discerned, and it can include addressing dire humanitarian problems in far-flung places around the world," Helton said.

Ultimately, Helton said, intervening effectively in Liberia, even with a relatively small force of perhaps 2,000 troops, could go a long way to mending the relations that were damaged by the diplomatic differences with countries such as France, Germany, and Russia that preceded the war in Iraq.

Helton said action in Liberia could help persuade other countries to help the United States keep the peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

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