The United States, with tens of thousands of troops already deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, is now considering taking part in a peacekeeping mission to end a civil war in Liberia, a West African nation founded by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago.
Washington, 3 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush did not mince words yesterday when asked about the chaos in Liberia.
"In order for there to be peace and stability in Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave now," Bush said.
Taylor is president of Liberia, where civil war has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years and is threatening to take more. He is also wanted for war crimes by an international court, complicating efforts to remove him from the scene.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Bush said the U.S. is "exploring all options" to bring peace to Liberia, a West African nation of 3 million people founded by freed American slaves a century and a half ago.
U.S. officials, under pressure from the United Nations and European allies, have signaled they may be willing to send a peacekeeping force of up to 2,000 troops to restore peace to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, after recent street fighting claimed 700 lives.
At the moment, a cease-fire between rebels and troops loyal to Taylor has brought relative calm to Monrovia, the U.S. State Department says. But concerns remain that a humanitarian disaster is imminent unless the international community takes swift action.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged the U.S. to lead a UN-backed peacekeeping mission in Liberia.
Bush told reporters at the White House that he has asked U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to work with Annan to devise a strategy.
"I've tasked the secretary of state to talk to Kofi Annan on how best to deal with Liberia. We're concerned when we see suffering -- and people are suffering there. The political instability is such that people are panicking. But the good news is there's a cease-fire in place now."
According to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, that cease-fire agreement calls for an international peacekeeping force of West African troops to bring calm to the streets of Monrovia, which is named after James Monroe, who was U.S. president when the country was founded by former slaves in 1824.
"There were cease-fire accords, agreements made by the parties in [peace talks in] Ghana. Those included an international component in terms of a West African force. The [UN] secretary-general and others have suggested there needs to be more than that, some additional force including, possibly, American. So that's what we're discussing."
Annan has said U.S. troops would give the West African forces more "heft." But Powell said yesterday that it remains unclear how many African countries would actually provide troops.
Liberia represents both a dilemma and an opportunity for Bush.
He has long shunned involving America in peacekeeping in places that are marginal to American national security. This policy is borne out by current deployments of 10,000 U.S. troops in and around Afghanistan and 150,000 in Iraq -- two nations the administration saw as critical to U.S. security interests.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is reportedly unenthusiastic about the prospect of sending troops to Liberia. One senior defense official was quoted as saying a range of options is being considered -- sending no troops, a small group of troops to protect the U.S. Embassy, or a contingent of U.S. peacekeepers.
But ahead of his first visit to Africa next week, greater American involvement in Liberia might give Bush a chance to seize the moral high ground from international critics who question his motives for invading Iraq and Afghanistan.
Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer at the respected "New Yorker" magazine and author of an award-winning book about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 titled "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda."
Gourevitch says that after failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bush administration now argues that it actually went to war to liberate the Iraqi people. He tells RFE/RL that such an argument raises the question of why the U.S. does not then intervene in other humanitarian disasters, such as in Liberia. He says that question is even more pressing as Bush gets set to visit South Africa and Uganda next week.
So far, says Gourevitch, those in the U.S. administration have "never shown any great energy about trying to have anything to do with resolving African conflict." So showing the political will to get involved to a "moderate degree in a highly defined mission might give them credibility and might be something that they can be successful [at], if they can define success in a limited enough fashion."
Political considerations aside, it would also be the right thing to do, Gourevitch says. He adds that while a Rwanda-like slaughter of 800,000 people in 100 days is not what Liberia is facing, its situation is nonetheless bleak and successful international intervention could help set a precedent for other conflicts in Africa.
Of Liberia's 3 million people, 1 million have been displaced by the war, Gourevitch says.
"Tens of thousands are fleeing across borders into other countries, including large numbers of people from neighboring countries who had fled into Liberia when it was the safe haven during their civil wars even just last year. So you have Ivory Coast refugees in Liberia now scampering back to the Ivory Coast in fright. You have overloaded, canoe-kind of ferryboats paddling people down the coast or motoring them down the coast to various refuges in other countries. And you have enormous numbers of people setting up spontaneous encampments in Monrovia and elsewhere. The morgues are overflowing, medical care is basically nonexistent. The country was in pretty sorry shape to begin with. So [what you have is] the total disruption of the modicum of order that existed in the capital."
Liberians themselves are pleading with Washington to rescue them from a war that has ravaged a once relatively prosperous nation. The latest round of fighting began three years ago when rebels sought to oust Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a civil war from 1989 to 1996.