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Liberate Liberia

Author: Joe Siegle
July 11, 2003
Wall Street Journal


This week in South Africa President Bush told reporters that he will work with the United Nations and African leaders to "see to it that Mr. Taylor leaves office so there can be a peaceful transition in Liberia." The president was, of course, referring to Charles Taylor, the Liberian president-cum-war-criminal who refuses to stand down. Yet despite his strong words, Mr. Bush continues to sidestep the question of whether the U.S. will intervene in Liberia.

Decisions to deploy U.S. troops are always a serious matter and must ultimately be taken on a case-by-case basis. In Liberia, the Bush administration is in a unique position to make a profound difference for the entire West African region at relatively low cost and with far-reaching political benefits for the United States. Sending U.S. forces at the head of an international peacekeeping mission is the right thing to do and the president should authorize deployment.

Troop deployments are typically justified on the basis of U.S. economic or security interests. In Liberia's case these are minor, though European Union and U.N. investigations link Taylor to al Qaeda operatives through diamond smuggling. Liberia also operates the world's second leading maritime registry, providing easy cover to groups transporting contraband.

But the impetus for intervening in Liberia is largely humanitarian. Founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, the country has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for the past 14 years. More than 200,0000 Liberians have perished since Taylor's initial Christmas Eve rebellion in 1989. Many thousands more are at risk -- from violence, food shortages and disease. More than a million Liberians are refugees or displaced. Another 150,000 Sierra Leoneans were killed when Taylor took the Liberian conflict over the border and threw that country into turmoil. Maimings, rape, and the use of child soldiers have been widespread.

Other political considerations, with implications for U.S. global leadership, also bear on the decision. Americans often complain about the disproportionate load we bear as the world's policeman. In reality, this burden has been shared. The British took the lead in stabilizing Sierra Leone. The French proactively responded in Ivory Coast, preventing the insurrection there from spiraling out of control. The French have also led the international force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Australians took the reins in East Timor.

In other words, a norm has evolved whereby the first-world country with the closest ties to a developing nation at risk of collapse takes the lead. Other countries back them up militarily, politically and financially. America's long ties to Liberia make it the obvious choice for this crisis -- and the world is looking to us for leadership. Support from other countries has already been pledged. Taking action in Liberia, therefore, is a matter of fulfilling our international responsibilities. Shirking this role would reinforce the cynical image held by many around the world of U.S. leadership -- a superpower to be feared but not respected. President Bush's claims that the United States cares about Africa would be labeled meaningless.

Lost in much of the discussion about Liberia is the ripeness of the moment for resolving this conflict. Fighting is now largely confined to the seaport capital, Monrovia. A cease-fire is generally holding, obviating the need to deploy troops under fire. All sides of the conflict have welcomed U.S. intervention and accept the desirability of a negotiated settlement. There is widespread war-weariness within the population and among combatants. Liberians from all factions and ethnic backgrounds revere America. Close cooperation and support from all of Liberia's neighbors -- Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast -- would greatly facilitate logistics and the interdiction of new arms shipments into Liberia. The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States has already asked the U.S. to intervene and has offered to commit 3,000 troops of its own. A U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force would be forthcoming. Thus, as far as interventions go, many of the pieces for resolving this one are already in place. The prospects for success in Liberia are good and the risks relatively low. In other words, Liberia is not Somalia.

Unfortunately, these favorable circumstances for effective intervention will not stay in place indefinitely. Charles Taylor has many tricks up his sleeve and will continue to try to confuse matters. Moreover, as previous stalemates in this conflict have shown, rebel forces can fragment and turn against one another, setting the conflict ablaze yet again. The longer President Bush equivocates, the more complex the task is likely to become.

For these reasons, President Bush should immediately deploy 2,000 marines to Monrovia whether or not Charles Taylor has departed. Indeed, while Taylor's statements that he will not leave until U.S. troops arrive are intended to buy him more time, this would allow for a deployment into a relatively stable setting. If Taylor lingers after the U.S. troops arrive, he should be arrested and turned over to the special war crimes court in Sierra Leone. (This will give him further incentive to depart for Nigeria sooner rather than later).

The initial objective of the intervention force would be to establish a presence in Monrovia. Once the capital has been secured, U.S. and international forces would fan out through the rest of this small country. The intervention force should proceed to disarm and demobilize all militias in Monrovia and the country at large. (The procedures for this should already be under discussion with the political leaderships of the competing factions). Monetary stipends and food rations should be made available to all militia fighters who turn in their weapons. As fighting is the only skill many of these young men possess, this step in the intervention is essential for facilitating greater cooperation and long-term security.

A deployment of this size would not affect U.S. operations in Iraq, which involves over 200,000 troops. Two thousand troops in a limited intervention would not "overextend" our forces, as some proponents have argued. As Monrovia and the countryside are secured, humanitarian organizations, many of which have courageously maintained some operations throughout the conflict, can be expected to quickly expand and funnel assistance throughout the country.

* * *

Military interventions are not ends in themselves. Ultimately, to be successful they must lead toward a stable political solution -- a key element of any exit strategy. In Liberia, with U.N. guidance, an interim authority can be established through negotiation with key political and civil society leaders. Barring members of an interim administration from participating in a subsequent elected government is one way of depoliticizing the interim process. Once an interim government is in place -- in three to six months -- U.S. troops could depart. U.N. troops would remain until a Liberian national army was re-established. The U.S. would commit to providing military back-up support should a security threat arise beyond the capacity of the U.N. forces.

The crisis in Liberia is ready for resolution. However, the U.S. needs to show leadership. It's in our interests, it's part of our international responsibility, and it's the right thing to do.

Mr. Siegle is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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