- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

By sending an assessment team of U.S. troops to Liberia, the United States may have put itself on an almost inevitable path toward sending a U.S. peace-keeping mission to that country. As President Bush makes his strides through Africa, many leaders will be reiterating their calls for a U.S. troop deployment. The worst-case perils of doing so can be summed up in two words: Somalia 1993. It is becoming increasingly clear, though, that Liberia can’t come out of its raging crisis without the help of an outside force.

Should Mr. Bush decide to send a U.S.-led peace-keeping mission to Liberia, he will undoubtedly remind the international community that, despite the criticism and wariness of U.S. military prowess, the world still looks to highly capable U.S. troops in times of trouble. And that may become part of Mr. Bush’s campaign of diplomacy in Africa. Also, there is a fundamental difference between what would likely be the mission in Liberia, and the one in Somalia a decade ago.

Yesterday, helicopters carring a 32-person assessment team arrived to Liberia, to evaluate the scale of the humanitarian crisis there and possibly lay the groundwork for a U.S. peace-keeping mission. “I’m here merely to assess humanitarian assistance,” said Navy Capt. Roger Coldiron, leader of the team that includes soldiers, engineers, and experts in logistics, medicine, water purification and other areas.

Judging from press reports, the U.S. assessment team can only conclude that relief workers can’t operate in Liberia under current conditions. Anti-government rebels control most of the country outside the capital, Monrovia, and continue to roam the outskirts of the capital. The presence of Liberia’s president, Charles Taylor, motivates acts of violence. Mr. Taylor was recently found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a Special Court in Sierra Leone. Mr. Bush has called on Mr. Taylor to step down, and the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, John W. Blaney, has tried to broker a truce between the Taylor government and rebels. The conflict in Liberia could destabilize or aggravate violence in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Nigeria, a top oil supplier to America.

Yesterday, Mr. Taylor said he would be willing to accept Nigeria’s offer to grant him asylum only after an international stabilization force arrives in Liberia. Stepping up the pressure on Mr. Bush for a U.S. deployment, Mr. Taylor said: “If one U.S. Marine stood on Broad Street and blew a whistle, ‘time out,’ then there would be peace,” adding, “When they arrive, bingo. There’s an exit.” That statement is, of course, nonsense.

The many years of conflict in Liberia and deep divisions within the native population would make any peace keeping mission hazardous. But unlike Somalia, U.S. troops wouldn’t have to depose a ruling warlord. Given the advance of rebels around Monrovia, Mr. Taylor surely has ample reasons for taking Nigeria’s invitation.

The situation in Liberia suggests a larger point. World events will continue to make demands on America’s military, which is why — as we reminded at the beginning of the year — Congress and the president should promptly study the need and means for expanding our active uniform personnel by at least a quarter-million combat troops.

However, notwithstanding the current heavy demands on our troops, Mr. Bush should go ahead with the deployment (we hope with a substantial contribution from West African military services) if he judges it in our national interest to do so. The insistent request for such help from other African countries may be of sufficient diplomatic value to the United States to constitute such a national interest.

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