In the spring of 1990, when the first President Bush occupied the Oval Office, American forces wound up evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Liberia but avoided peacekeeping, leaving a raging civil conflict to drag on for years.
Liberia suffered horrendously, with about 250,000 lives lost and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
The bloodshed barely came to an end in 1997 with Charles Taylor's troops omnipresent around ballot boxes, carefully monitoring a Taylor victory. Since then, Taylor has repressed his people, destroyed a once-functioning economy, made deals with terrorists and offered arms and cash to virtually any group of thugs in West Africa ready to cut him a share of diamonds, gold or timber.
So here we are in 2003, with American troops off the coast of Liberia, and once again we don't have a firm decision by the president to commit the Marines to lead a multinational force to enforce a cease-fire on the warring parties.
Yet such a decision finally might nudge Taylor, now under criminal indictment by an international criminal court, to take a Nigerian offer of asylum and leave the country.
Taylor's six-year term ended Saturday. He says he will resign in a week, but he still is being coy about any firm departure plans. Taylor should leave, and the United States should be there to help keep the peace in the aftermath.
The first contingent of two Nigerian battalions has landed at Monrovia's airport, with another West African battalion in the wings. But, as in the summer of 1990, the West Africans cannot do it alone -- they don't have the funds, the helicopters to move troops around the country or the communications to manage the operation.
In recent times, the French prevented Ivory Coast from tearing itself apart. The British halted marauding by rebels in Sierra Leone. The United States can do the same in Liberia now.
Herman Cohen, the assistant secretary of State for African affairs during the 1990 Liberian blowup, was quoted after the fact as saying that "a modest intervention at that point to end the fighting in Monrovia could have avoided a prolonged conflict."
That conflict spanned the Bush and Clinton administrations, with Taylor ultimately destabilizing his neighbors.
West African nations are lined up to provide the bulk of the peacekeeping forces, but many -- including the United Nations secretary-general and Liberians of all stripes -- are appealing to Washington to lead the way with troops on the ground.
The American military in Liberia would play the following key roles:
* provide overall command and control for a multinational force;
* help provide security in and around Monrovia, the capital, particularly the airport and ports;
* provide logistics to spread troops from the Economic Community of West African States to regional strategic points, including sites for disarmament and border crossings;
* create a joint peacekeeping planning process to establish an interim government, meet humanitarian needs and support the United Nations in dealing with refugees. And when the time is right, American efforts would lead to the formal "blue helmet" U.N. peacekeeping operation that was authorized last week.
The order to move the amphibious U.S. force to Liberia is a sign that a reluctant Bush administration may be ready to engage. There is combined U.N. and West African endorsement of a coordinated entrance of Marines and African forces to enforce a cease-fire.
It is crucial for the United States to act this week to end the fighting, open avenues for humanitarian relief and begin the transition toward a more stable future.
Not acting would be deja vu all over again for the people of Liberia.
6 August 2003
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times