- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the United States has no vital strategic interests in Liberia’s civil war but that it does have an obligation as the world’s only superpower not to allow West Africa to “come apart.”

In a self-criticism, he said that the Bush administration, which has demanded deployment of an African force before it sends any U.S. troops, has been slow in identifying what exactly that force needs from the United States.

The secretary, speaking to reporters and editors from The Washington Times, made a strong case for American involvement in bringing stability to the war-torn nation, although he noted that the mission will be limited in “scope and duration.”

“In Liberia if you ask the question, ‘What is our strategic, vital interest?’ it will be hard to define it that way,” he said. “But we do have an interest in making sure that West Africa doesn’t simply come apart. We do have an interest in showing the people of Africa that we can support efforts to stabilize a tragic situation as we work with others to bring relief to people — people who are desperately in need.”

In addition, Mr. Powell said, “We do have a historic link to Liberia, and we do have some obligation as the most important and powerful nation on the face of the earth not to look away when a problem like this comes before us.

“We looked away once before in Rwanda, with tragic consequences. This is not Rwanda, nor is it Somalia,” where U.S. soldiers were ambushed by warlords while providing security for food relief in 1993.

Asked whether such thinking contradicts George W. Bush’s opposition, as a presidential candidate, to the United States’ being a global police officer during the 2000 election campaign, Mr. Powell insisted that the Bush administration is not trying to police the world.

“There is no situation we can ignore, but that doesn’t mean necessarily the United States has to be the policeman that goes in. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire it was the French; in the case of Sierra Leone it was the British,” he said in reference to recent peacekeeping missions to the two African nations.

“In this case, with all our European friends pretty stretched and with Liberia having a direct historical connection with the United States … people look to us to help,” he said.

He acknowledged that the United States also is “clearly stretching” its forces around the world, although there are “still unused capabilities.”

The countries from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that are preparing to send the initial contingent to Liberia “just don’t have the capacity to deploy forces and keep them sustained in the field,” Mr. Powell said.

“I don’t need 250 guys with no equipment,” he added. “Only the United States, France, Britain and maybe one or two other countries have that kind of capability within their armed forces.”

According to the Liberian authorities, at least 600 people have been killed since rebels fighting to oust President Charles Taylor battled into the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital, during the weekend. The rebels said yesterday that they had ordered their forces to halt the attacks.

An amphibious group led by the helicopter-landing ship USS Iwo Jima, carrying 2,000 U.S. Marines, awaited orders in the Red Sea on its way to the Mediterranean on whether to continue around North Africa to Liberia.

Mr. Powell defended President Bush’s decision not to rush into deploying American troops before the objectives and strategy of a multinational force are clearly defined, but he did not shy away from self-criticism.

“Where we have lost time in not moving as rapidly as I would like is identifying and putting in place and determining what those ECOWAS forces need from the United States or from the international community to do the job,” he said.

A meeting in Senegal yesterday was an attempt to do just that, he noted. It was also assessing “how quickly some element of the peacekeeping force from ECOWAS can be moved to Monrovia.”

Recalling the so-called Powell Doctrine from his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff more than a decade ago, he said: “My view is that you should have a clear political objective if you are going to commit forces, and then commit the necessary forces to achieve that objective.”

He also said the United States will have “nothing to do” with Liberia’s political transition after Mr. Taylor’s departure, which would include putting a new president in place, a transitional government and an election.

Mr. Taylor, indicted on charges of being a war criminal, has agreed to go into exile in Nigeria, but if, how and when he does “is another issue,” Mr. Powell said.

He repeatedly emphasized his close cooperation on Liberia with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with whom he said he speaks on the phone at least once a day.

Just before the end of the hourlong interview, an aide walked into the room with a message that Mr. Annan was calling for the second time yesterday.

Asked about recent comments by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and British Prime Minister Tony Blair criticizing recent calls by some European countries, most notably France, for a “multipolar” world, the secretary said he is hardly worried about a serious challenge to the United States’ dominance.

“Is France now out there trying to round up candidates to be the other pole in a multipolar system? That might be reading too much into French politics and French foreign policy,” he said.

“Three months ago, everybody was writing that [another pole] already existed. It was France, Russia and Germany, and now, voila, it’s just France. Let’s wait awhile, wait for the dust to settle, see where our mutual interests are,” Mr. Powell said.

He added that he has invited French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin to visit Washington for the first time since their bitter public disagreements at the United Nations before the war in Iraq.

“My French colleague and I have been in conversation, and I expect him to come over at the tail end of the summer or early fall,” he said.

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