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Lyman: Liberia Issue Dogged Bush's Africa Trip

Interviewee: Princeton N. Lyman
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 14, 2003

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Princeton N. Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and to South Africa, says President Bush’s July 8-12 trip to Africa was overshadowed by the issue of Liberia and whether Washington would comply with requests from U.N. and African leaders to order American peacekeeping troops to that war-torn nation. “Everywhere he went, people wanted to know if he was going to back up his rhetoric about helping Africa in a concrete way with a commitment to put troops into Liberia,” Lyman says.

Lyman, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies, says that even though the decision to commit troops is a difficult one, he favors dispatching from 1,500 to 2,000 forces to head a U.N. peacekeeping mission. If Bush decides against sending troops, “It would look like his trip was more rhetoric than reality,” Lyman says.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 14, 2003.


In a previous interview, you gave a hopeful analysis of what to expect from the Bush trip to Africa. Were your expectations borne out?

The impact of the president’s trip was a little bit like [the reaction to] his African initiatives here. It was more than people expected from this administration. People were willing to look and listen to him on this trip and wonder if he was going to be able to come through on all his initiatives. He was able to highlight a great deal of his HIV/AIDS initiative. He talked a good deal about terrorism. But the issue that dogged him throughout the trip— because he had not made the decision yet on what to do— was the Liberian one. Everywhere he went, people wanted to know if he was going to back up his rhetoric about helping Africa in a concrete way with a commitment to put troops into Liberia.

Many observers say a Liberian mission would not be as much peacekeeping as peacemaking. Where do you stand?

I think we should do it. If Bush does not do it now, it would take a great deal of credibility away from his visit to Africa. It would look like his trip was more rhetoric than reality. Obviously, it is a serious decision, and is not an easy situation. But in the context of Africa policy, in terms of sharing burdens and responsibilities with Africans and Europeans, Liberia is a logical place to make this kind of commitment. If we go in with the right kind of force structure and with the understanding on what our job is and what the United Nations’ and the West Africans’ jobs are, I think it can be a successful intervention.

Former President Jimmy Carter, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times on July 13, suggested about 2,000 U.S. troops were needed. You said in our previous interview that a substantial U.N. force was needed. What is your best guess at this time?

I am worried now that the pressure will be on the administration to do it on the cheap, and that will only result in a worse situation. I think Jimmy Carter’s estimate is about right. My own is about 1,500 to 2,000 U.S. troops, with an initial West African force of 2,000 to 3,000, so you have somewhere around 4,000 to 5,000 total. That’s the first phase. That group should go in and stabilize the situation around Monrovia, the capital, allow for major humanitarian activities— because more than one-third of the population is in Monrovia— and should work out a complete ceasefire between the different factions so the political process can get underway. That needs to be followed by a U.N. peacekeeping force. That ought to be substantial— in the neighborhood of the total number that went into Sierra Leone, which reached at one point 17,000. It may not have to be quite that large, but it has to be substantial, because it has to move upcountry, help disarm the various groups, facilitate humanitarian activities throughout Liberia, and keep the country peaceful while the political process goes on over the next year.

Where would the 17,000 troops come from?

The United Nations put 17,000 into Sierra Leone. Those are being drawn down now. They come from all over the world. As they are being drawn down in Sierra Leone, one should be able to recruit for Liberia. The point is, if you [send too few troops], you end up in the situation like we have in the Congo. We have an inadequate force. You have massacres. You then have to follow up with a bigger force. If we do it right in Liberia, where we will be very well received, we can stabilize the situation, and, within a year, be drawing down our troops substantially.

Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, has suggested the United States should lead this peacekeeping force. Do you agree?

Yes. Although the West Africans deserve a lot of credit for putting in peacekeeping forces in both Liberia and Sierra Leone earlier in the 1990s to help stabilize the situation, they would not create the same confidence among the Liberians that [U.S. troops] would. And there were some human-rights violations, looting, and corruption among those forces in the past. The United States should lead the peacekeepers and set the pattern and standards for this force with the West Africans and do a lot of training in the process. Otherwise, there will be suspicion among the Liberians and a temptation to play politics with the peacekeeping force.

What are the arguments against sending military forces into Liberia?

One, it is not going to be an easy situation, particularly because of the child soldiers. Nobody wants to shoot down children but, on the other hand, they are drugged and armed combatants.

On the government or guerrilla side?

On both sides, and so you have children as young as 10, up to 14 to 15, armed and separated from their families. This is very tricky to handle. [A second argument against sending troops is that] it is not clear what [President Charles] Taylor’s followers would do in this situation, and so you could end up with some challenging of the peacekeeping force and some violence. That would become messy. Third, the political process is very complicated. We might end up being there longer than we want. And finally, of course, a question a lot of other people raise is how much we are overstretched in terms of our military engagements, although 2,000 against the approximately 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq doesn’t represent too much of a commitment.

During much of Bush’s trip, the press focused on whether the administration deliberately deceived the public about Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. Did that diminish the political impact of the trip back in the United States?

I think it did. At the beginning of the trip, the coverage was very much on the African issues, but by the time Bush got to South Africa [on July 9], and from there on, questions on Iraq dominated— if not the press conferences, certainly the press coverage. It was unfortunate, because Bush’s visit to Uganda was very significant, not only in terms of aid but also in terms of what he did or did not say to the Ugandans about the Congo situation.

Was the Congo situation and Uganda discussed?

The issue must have come up in private, but none of the public declarations or discussions suggest that the president had much influence on Uganda’s involvement in the Congo. Similarly, in Nigeria, which is such a major country in Africa and has so many interesting issues and possibilities and which would be involved in [peacekeeping in] Liberia, there was very little coverage of African issues. It was a brief stop, but, still, it was a significant one— and again Iraq took over the coverage.

Should Taylor face the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone?

My own gut feeling is that he definitely deserves to face that tribunal. But I think the initial requirement is to get him out of Liberia. If the Nigerians will take him and put him under some very close watch, almost house arrest, that might be the next step we have to accept. The only other option would be to go into [Liberia] and capture him, and that would lead to a fair amount of violence. I don’t think we or anyone else is quite up to that.

How did the South Africa leg of the trip play out? You had predicted this would be a “tricky” visit for Bush, given the differences he and Thabo Mbeki had over HIV/AIDS policies, Iraq, and Zimbabwe.

It came out as well as it could for both presidents. President Mbeki was happy to be with the president and be seen with him. They did not have any public spats over HIV/AIDS or Zimbabwe [whose president, Robert Mugabe, has been condemned by Washington for suppressing dissent and violating human rights]. In fact, if there was some criticism, it was that it looked like President Bush did not push Mbeki to be tougher on Zimbabwe. But both presidents came out of this very well, because the relationship is too important not to be a strong one. They managed to put the Iraq war differences behind them and come together on a lot of common issues. What this will result in with regard to Zimbabwe is not very clear. I don’t think President Bush changed Mbeki’s soft approach toward President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, but on the other hand, Bush indicated Washington would remain free to criticize Mugabe. So it may end up with a “good cop, bad cop” situation.

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