The Bush administration remained noncommittal yesterday on whether it would send U.S. troops to quell the civil war in Liberia, where President Charles Taylor was defying a U.S. demand to step down.
President Bush “is determined to help the people of Liberia find a path to peace,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said after the National Security Council discussed the Liberian crisis.
Reflecting what one senior State Department official called intensive internal discussions, Mr. Fleischer told reporters that “the exact steps that could be taken are still under review.” He said a U.S. military role is still under consideration.
Some of the harshest critics of the U.S.-led war in Iraq are all but begging a reluctant Bush administration to lead a peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Within the U.S. government, the Pentagon has been hot on Iraq but cool on Liberia, while the State Department has taken the opposite tack.
With a bloody civil war flaring up again in a country founded by freed American slaves more than 180 years ago, “this has been a doubled-edged debate about American power for everyone involved,” said Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University.
“All those people who were ambivalent about American power now think it’s great so long as it is being used for their purposes,” he said.
Many of those most opposed to the U.S.-led effort in Iraq now argue that American participation is vital to the success of a proposed 5,000-strong multinational peacekeeping mission to enforce a cease-fire. Among them are U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, leading European powers — including France — and the editorial page of the New York Times.
“There are lot of expectations that the United States may be prepared to lead this force,” Mr. Annan said during a visit to Switzerland yesterday. “Several countries, members of the U.N., have appealed for that. The Liberian populations are also asking for that.”
The pressure from the international community comes as Mr. Bush prepares for a critical trip to Africa and puts to test one of the key issues of his 2000 presidential campaign.
“There may be some moments when we use our troops as peacekeepers, but not often,” Mr. Bush said during that campaign.
“It must be in our vital interest whether we ever send troops,” Mr. Bush said then. “The mission must be clear. Soldiers must understand why are we going. The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well-defined.”
A senior administration official told the Associated Press that the current thinking within the administration is in line with those statements.
The official said Mr. Bush is reluctant to send troops purely as peacekeepers. However, another official told the Associated Press that the White House did not want to take the military option off the table for fear of making headlines just before Mr. Bush’s Africa trip.
Few African nations supported the war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but several West African nations said they were prepared to contribute some 3,600 troops to an American-led force to restore order in Liberia.
But “being the world’s only superpower means having the luxury of saying ‘no’ when the rest of the world wants you to say ‘yes,’” said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“For some, especially the European countries, it’s fine for the United States to be the world’s policeman so long as we only patrol in places where we have no strategic interest,” he said. “It is as if our interventions are only legitimate so long as they do nothing to advance American foreign policy goals or increase our own security.”
The New York Times, which ardently opposed Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy, said in an editorial yesterday that “the United States cannot send troops to pacify every international conflict or relieve every humanitarian emergency.”
But the paper added that Mr. Annan “makes a compelling case for dispatching an American-led international force to Liberia” and said the rationale is both “humanitarian and geopolitical.”
The current round of fighting in Liberia began three years ago as rebels began trying to oust Mr. Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war.
Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in the capital, Monrovia, last month, and the war had displaced more than 1 million Liberians.
Mr. Fleischer yesterday said the administration has seen encouraging signs of calm.
“The situation in Liberia has been eased, and there’s quiet and calm on the streets of Monrovia recently as a result of the international community coming together to work toward the cease-fire,” he said.
Advocates of a U.S. role in Liberia say further bloodshed and political uncertainty there could spill into other West African countries, create a refugee and humanitarian crisis and sour the U.S. image on the continent just as Mr. Bush prepares to leave Monday on his first presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa.
They also note that Liberia, with its long and complex cultural and political links to Washington, presents a special case of U.S. action.
France took the lead in attempting to stem fighting in northern Congo and in Ivory Coast, both former colonies, while Britain headed a deployment to its former colony of Sierra Leone.
“There’s almost this strange hangover from the colonial days, with each former Western power picking up his share of the white man’s burden,” said Columbia’s Mr. Jervis.
With its unparalleled political, technological and military clout, the United States often stands accused of deciding faraway disputes simply by choosing whether to participate or not.
Middle East analysts say the Israeli-Palestinian “road map” to peace has no chance of success if Washington is not there to ensure that both sides comply. Pakistan has long sought to drag reluctant American administrations into its dispute with India over the Kashmir province. U.S. troops and diplomatic muscle proved critical in a series of Balkans disputes of the mid-1990s, after European efforts foundered.
Even when Spain and Morocco nearly came to blows over the uninhabited Parsley Islands in the Mediterranean last summer, it was Secretary of State Colin L. Powell who was forced to mediate.
Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.