President Bush said he was not going to be rushed into making a decision on whether to send as many as 2,000 U.S. troops to Liberia to lead peacekeeping efforts — a decision officials across the administration had predicted would be made yesterday.
“I recognize the United States has got a … unique history with Liberia. And, therefore, it’s created a certain sense of expectations. But I also want to make sure that there are certain expectations met as well,” the president said yesterday.
As Mr. Bush continued to weigh his decision, pleas for U.S. help grew louder in Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in 1847, and the Pentagon ordered the U.S. military commander in Europe to begin planning for any intervention in the West African nation.
About 2,000 Liberians marched to the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Monrovia, yesterday, walking behind an American flag and chanting slogans denouncing their president, Charles Taylor.
They chanted: “No more Taylor. We want Bush. We want peace.”
Gen. James Jones, who leads U.S. troops in Europe, was sent a “warning order” directive overnight yesterday, asking him to give the Pentagon an assessment of how the situation in Liberia could be handled.
Options range from sending no U.S. troops — which, several administration officials said, is increasingly unlikely — to sending thousands. Officials said the most likely option is dispatching 500 to 1,000 troops to coordinate logistics and assist nongovernmental organizations in peacekeeping efforts.
While several officials in the State Department and the Pentagon had predicted Wednesday that there would be a decision by yesterday, Mr. Bush said he has not made up his mind.
“I am in the process of gathering the information necessary to make a rational decision as to how to … enforce the cease-fire in place,” he told African journalists ahead of his trip to the continent next week.
Mr. Bush chastised reporters for getting ahead of the story. Several cable networks and newspapers reported that the president had decided to send troops to Liberia.
“You know, you read all kinds of things, of course, in American newspapers — it’s sport here. I’m sure it is elsewhere, as well. The gathering of the speculator, the leaker, the whatever — what do you call them? The source — people speaking out loud, ‘The president has done this, the president is thinking this,’” he said, prompting laughter.
“Look, once the strategy is in place, I will let people know whether or not I’m airborne or not. In other words, … I don’t need to dramatize the decision. It’s getting plenty of attention here at home.”
Mr. Bush said he was awaiting a report from the Economic Community of West African States, which yesterday discussed the Liberian crisis in Accra, Ghana.
“We had a meeting there with our military thinkers to determine feasibility, to look at different options, and they have yet to report back to the White House,” Mr. Bush said.
U.S. defense officials had said Wednesday that the administration was mulling a plan to send several hundred U.S. troops to lead a larger multinational peacekeeping operation. The Pentagon has put together contingency plans for using up to 2,000 troops and is prepared to move if ordered, they said.
Few, however, think the number will be that high. “If the decision is to do something, it will probably be in the hundreds,” one official told the Associated Press. “Two thousand would be a high-end number.”
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he was consulting the United Nations and leaders in Africa. “We have provided the president with no recommendation yet, therefore he has not made a decision,” he told reporters.
At the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice laid out the case for sending U.S. troops into Monrovia.
Key among the reasons is stability, which could avert horrors similar to the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. President Clinton did not send troops there, a decision, he later said, he most lamented.
“We’ve also recognized since September 11 that one wants to be careful about permitting conditions of failed states to create conditions in which there’s so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism,” Miss Rice said.
Still, Mr. Bush will not send troops in on a whim, she said. “An American president is always reluctant to have forces go anywhere.”
The president, who leaves Monday for a five-day, five-country trip to Africa, reiterated his call that Mr. Taylor step down. The Liberian leader had vowed to cede power last month under a peace accord, but he reneged on the deal and said he would serve out the six months remaining in his term and perhaps run for re-election, sparking a resurgence in the West African nation’s three-year civil war.
“What I am thinking about is how to bring some stability to the country in a way that will be effective, and there’s no question step one of any effective policy, whether we are involved or not, is for Charles Taylor to leave,” Mr. Bush said. “That message is clear. And I can’t make it any more clear.”
Miss Rice said, “What the president is saying is that until … Charles Taylor is out of politics, there isn’t going to be any stabilization of the situation in Liberia. It doesn’t matter what kind of force you send in, it doesn’t matter what you try to do, his leaving is a condition for the parties coming to a stable peace and beginning a political process.”
The current round of fighting began three years ago as rebels have sought to oust Mr. Taylor from power. Fighting killed hundreds of civilians trapped in Monrovia last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.
While some on Capitol Hill expressed concern that the United States could not handle another military operation, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said the additional deployment of U.S. troops to Liberia would be manageable but should be approached cautiously.
On another front, 50 to 75 Marines are on standby at a naval base in Rota, Spain, and could be in Liberia within about six hours, if needed, to secure the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. That deployment would be separate from any peacekeeping mission.