Days Of Hope, Days Of Fear

This is a hopeful time and an awful time for Liberians. The despised regime of dictator Charles Taylor is in its final days. Once the first contingent of West African peacekeepers arrives in the capital, Monrovia, he's supposed to go into exile. Then the American troops come in. It's choreographed like a ballet, but it didn't look like one last week. Hundreds of freed political prisoners spilled onto the streets, some loudly praising Jesus for helping them survive up to two years on a daily handful of rice. At the same time, a rebel force moved viciously on Monrovia, clashing with Taylor's troops on the way. Once again, U.S. planners had to tear up the endgame timetable. The peacekeepers--once scheduled to arrive last week and then rescheduled to arrive this week--are now due next week. Maybe.

What's happening in Liberia doesn't look much like nation-building yet. But the fact is that the country has nowhere to go but up. Liberians are so eager for U.S. attention that many of them fervently wish Washington would abort slow-going power-sharing talks nearby in Ghana, and simply appoint an American to lead a transitional government. The Bush administration won't go that far, but it does say it means business. "We deploy U.S. forces to make a difference," said one senior State Department official in Washington last week. "We don't deploy U.S. forces to stand around and stay there until somebody else changes the situation."

Washington also recognizes that a successful U.S.-backed peacekeeping operation could send a helpful message to the world--that notwithstanding Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's America is interested in more than solo gun slinging. But the significance of Liberia goes beyond that. A strong U.S. hand in rebuilding the country would complete the effective recolonization of one of Africa's most troubled regions. By deploying British combat troops three years ago to protect a West African capital, Prime Minister Tony Blair brought neighboring Sierra Leone back from the brink. The move rescued the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping operation, which has subsequently overseen the demobilization of rebels, peaceful elections and retraining of the country's military and police. A U.N.-backed war-crimes tribunal is now going after alleged war criminals--most recently Taylor himself, indicted last month on charges that he'd backed drug-crazed guerrillas in return for access to rebel-dug Sierra Leonean diamonds. To the east, France last year deployed troops in an ex-colony, Cote d'Ivoire, to shut down an insurrection led by dissident soldiers; that, too, has led to a peace deal.

Now it's Washington's turn. Bush is fortunate that Taylor's grotesque regime hangs like a ripe fruit ready to drop. Taylor terrorized Liberians into voting him into office in 1997 following a guerrilla war. (His in-your-face campaign slogan: "I killed your --ma, I killed your pa.") Moved to act, the United Nations imposed regime change-lite. First came sanctions on diamond and timber sales. Then two years ago, rebels based in Guinea and allegedly trained by U.S. advisers rose up against Taylor. The main rebel group, known by its acronym, LURD, is the one now marching on Monrovia. The insurgents share the chief U.S. goal--ousting Taylor--but their actions now are angering Washington. "All parties to the Liberian conflict must understand that the international community will not accept any attempt to pre-empt the negotiations [in Ghana] through the resumption of fighting," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declared last week.

Liberia's rock-bottom straits represent an opportunity. Taylor's fearsome, drug-addled soldiers--many scarcely taller than their rifles--get paid only when they go into battle. Liberians will work long, hard hours for $30 a month. David Parker, a European Commission specialist in disarmament and reconstruction in Monrovia, predicts that any peacekeeping force offering $50 for an AK-47 would quickly be buried in weapons. During the brief peace that followed Taylor's sham election, reconstruction teams were quickly able to rebuild bridges and get the port up and running again, he says.

Two weeks ago Taylor was still insisting that outsiders were to blame for Liberia's woes. U.N. sanctions were hurting his people, he said: "Even Iraq was permitted to sell oil for medicine and food." He added, without irony: "The international community has denied our people their basic human rights." For all his tough talk, he was even then preparing for exile in Nigeria. He had bought and renovated a house in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and shipped some goods including personal possessions there. His sons are selling off their flashy all-terrain vehicles. Taylor has been paying off close members of his security detail. Some have received as much as $1,000.

These days Taylor's insistence that the African peacekeeping troops arrive before he leaves probably has more to do with concerns about his own safe transition than with the niceties of the Liberian constitutional process. U.N. officials last week were seeking assurances from the designated successor, Vice President Moses Blah, that he'll cede power without attempting some kind of last stand of his own.

Pending Bush's decision to send peacekeepers to Liberia, the American boots on the ground there are worn by civilians. Representatives of the Washington-based logistics firm Pacific Architects and Engineers last week raced to line up enough trucks and building materials to support the troops when they come. These experts have done heavy lifting on Pentagon contracts for four decades, from Vietnam to Latin America. Washington's history of nation-building in those places is decidedly mixed. Liberians can only hope that luck will for once be on their side.

Days Of Hope, Days Of Fear | News