- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Congressional leaders from both parties said yesterday that they want to hear a “strong case” from the administration on committing troops to Liberia, including answers about the number of troops and their mission, before they back any deployment.

“We’re not going to send our troops into harm’s way without asking a lot of questions,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican. “And I think the president is weighing it in that light as well.”

“I will want to see if it is a peacekeeping mission, and are we going to bring in other countries to be helpful here so that we don’t spend our troops needlessly?” she said. “If it’s not a peacekeeping mission, I’m going to have to know what the United States’ security interest is.”

President Bush has not decided whether to commit troops, but he faces pressure from the international community, from Liberians who have demonstrated in the past week in favor of U.S. intervention, and even from Liberian leader Charles Taylor, whose ouster Mr. Bush demands.

Yesterday, a 32-person team deployed by the administration to Liberia began to assess a potential U.S. role there. Lawmakers said they want to hear from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is expected to brief Congress later this week.

“We don’t have all the information that the president has, and we are going to get that in the next few days. Then we can make a decision on what Congress’ responsibility is,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

“Until we hear more about the purpose and the justification, as well as the length of time and what other matters may come up in this regard, we’re not in a position to make any final decision,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

Some lawmakers oppose any U.S. intervention, including Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said he hasn’t been convinced of the need for troops.

“I think it’s premature, and I would think a strong case would have to be made that this is necessary to protect America’s vital interests,” he said.

“Part of my concerns have to do with the extent to which America’s commitments around the globe are stretching our military too thin. We’re already seeing a lot of pressure put on reserve units who are called up to active duty because of the structure of our armed forces,” he said.

Other senators and representatives, though, have stated their willingness to support deployment.

“We’re certainly not going to war in Liberia. The United Nations has requested the United States to participate in, I suppose, both peacemaking and peacekeeping. I think that’s appropriate for us to do, personally,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. But, he added, U.S. troops “ought not to be the major players.”

Mr. Hoyer compared a mission in Liberia with U.S. involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo — interventions to which many Republicans objected. He said American troops “stopped the killing, and we now have relative peace and stability in both Bosnia and Kosovo.”

He said the United States must be part of the action because it “is looked to, no matter what the world says, as the leader in these efforts.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, also supported a role based on what he expects the 32-person mission to report — that American troops as part of a U.N.-led force could at least go in to guard U.S. and other foreign embassies.

“My understanding is it would be probably a battalion level and it might involve several hundred Americans, verging up toward 1,000, maybe in that range,” said Mr. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“There’s no question that Liberia presents a special case,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, pointing to its history as a nation formed in the early 19th century by freed American slaves. “I think we all feel a moral sense as it relates to Liberia.”

He said, though, that he wants to see an international team and that he is concerned about overdeployment.

“To the extent we have a smaller commitment and others have a commitment to it as well, that causes me a little less concern,” he said. “But I am concerned that we’ve got Afghanistan, we’ve got Iraq, we’ve got the war against terrorism, now Liberia — what if something else were to come up that would involve our national interest? How do we prioritize?”

Still, many leaders seemed to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I think most members are very much open-minded about it and have some concerns. I have some concerns about stretching our forces too thin at this time,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.

Vice President Dick Cheney met briefly with Senate Republicans yesterday afternoon and assured them that no decision had been made on committing troops, Mr. Santorum said.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said last week that the military could handle the operation but that it will raise questions about how to structure U.S. forces over the long term.

“At this point in time, our armed forces could accept that level of deployment,” he said. “But I must say that in my judgment — and I’ve been associated with them for some 30 years — we are at force levels which are able to carry out the missions, but we must look very prudently when we ask more of them, and particularly their families. It’s tough on those families, I assure you.”

Another outstanding question is whether Congress should authorize any troop deployment.

Mr. DeLay took a wait-and-see approach on that, too.

“I think Congress ought to be consulted, and they are being consulted. Whether we ought to have a formal vote, it’s too early to say right now,” he said.

Mr. Bush did win praise for sending the assessment team to Liberia.

“The president has been correct in sending a group over to begin with to survey the situation and carefully tailor, and through diplomacy, what we do,” Mr. Lugar said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, agreed. But he said he hopes the president’s final decision isn’t based on pressure.

“I think the president is correct to have military people review the circumstances before he commits,” he said. “I hope he won’t be stampeded into a decision.”

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