- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

As the fighting in Liberia escalates, 2,300 U.S. Marines are deployed off the coast of Liberia and the White House has yet to identify what America’s interests, even broadly defined, could be in intervening militarily in the West African nation.

President Bush has already committed the United States to supporting the future peace-keeping efforts of other African nations in Liberia, but the scale of that involvement remains ambiguous. Mr. Bush said on Friday, “I did order for our military in limited numbers to head…to the area, to help prepare [Economic Community of West African States’] arrival to relieve human suffering.” He also said the United Nations would be “responsible for relieving U.S. troops in short order.” Mr. Bush did not specify what those limited numbers may be and whether the United States could get embroiled in a more extensive mission, should the situation become volatile.

Earlier this month, this page conditionally endorsed a mission in Liberia, if Mr. Bush “judges it in our national interest to do so.” But Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged last week, during an exclusive interview with editors from The Washington Times, that “In Liberia, if you ask the question, ‘What is our strategic, vital interest?’ it will be hard to define it that way.” He went on to assert the United States had a moral and historical obligation to intercede. But national security interest is precisely how we believe the mission must be legitimately justified, if it can be, given the situation on the ground in Liberia and America’s already extensive engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yesterday, while African, U.N. and U.S. officials met in Ghana for talks on Liberia, rebel groups refused to heed a U.S. request to withdraw to a specified demarcation line. Nigeria, has pledged both troops to Liberia and refuge to its president, Charles Taylor. That deployment this week was unlikely, and Mr. Taylor has said he will only leave under certain conditions.

The White House has been wise to keep African nations front and center of a potential mission in Liberia, but America’s engagement could quickly intensify and become prolonged if the effort is undermined and U.S. prestige is on the line. The risk is difficult to estimate, even with a small force. “It is potentially a very dangerous situation,” said Gen. Peter Pace of the Marine Corps, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “If we’re asked to do something militarily, we need to make sure we do it with the proper numbers of troops and that we be prepared for the eventualities of having to take military action,” he added.

While we are not yet prepared to expressly oppose deploying U.S. troops to Liberia, such an engagement appears to be ill-advised, unless a better case is soon made. The U.S. military is currently overextended generally, and particularly regarding civilian affairs units. Between Iraq and Afghanistan, our civilian affair units are already stretched to the point of deficiencies. It is, therefore, necessary for the White House to establish some priorities. The world is an extremely dangerous place. America must define its interests carefully.

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