Liberia: Do It, But Do It Right

At each stop on his Africa tour last week, President George W. Bush hinted--without quite committing himself--that he's about to send peacekeepers to war-racked Liberia. The move shocked diplomats and policy experts, even as it overjoyed most Africans. After all, Bush came to office heaping scorn on peacekeeping and declaring Africa outside the U.S. national interest.

Why the reversal, then? Has the White House suddenly found religion? Or is it just trying to burnish its post-Iraq image by showing the world that it really does care about human misery--even when oil is not involved?

The answer matters little to Liberians, who care only that Bush does the job right. This is no small order, however; as Bush is slowly learning in Iraq and Afghanistan, merely keeping the peace in a chaotic land is extremely difficult.

Luckily, recent history provides a handy guide for what not to do in Liberia. Bush must avoid the mistakes that doomed the last U.S. foray into Africa: the 1992 intervention in Somalia. Bush's father dipatched 25,000 soldiers to deliver aid. The GIs' deployment was soon drastically cut, however, even as their mission expanded. The result, predictably, was a disaster. On Oct. 3, 1993, a group of underequipped U.S. Army Rangers was ambushed in Mogadishu, and 18 were killed. Bill Clinton, who by then had become president, quickly pulled out the rest.

Although there's no foolproof way to avoid a similar result this time, a few basic steps can dramatically improve the odds. For starters, Bush must fight the temptation to intervene on the cheap. This means using ample troops, with a clear sense of mission and enough heavy armor to protect them. Never mind Bush's statement that he'll get involved only once Liberians sign a ceasefire and their bloodthirsty president, Charles Taylor, steps down. Taylor is known for breaking promises, and truces in this region tend not to last. If the U.S. military goes to Liberia, it will soon end up making peace, not keeping it.

Unfortunately, Bush seems not to recognize this. American officials predict he'll send only 500 to 2,000 soldiers, backed by an unknown number of regional troops. A U.S. force of this size, or one limited to providing logistics, will be hopelessly inadequate, no matter how many African troops show up to help. Most African armies are poorly equipped and undisciplined, and so their contribution will be cosmetic.

Of course, Defense officials are already complaining that they're stretched too thin --with deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is bunk. The United States has about 146,000 troops in Iraq and 10,000 in Afghanistan. The American military can deploy almost a million active-duty and reserve troops. That leaves plenty left over for a robust Liberian force.

Bush should also agree to leave the troops in Liberia longer than the three months he's currently planning. Here another of his predecessors' missteps is instructive: Clinton sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994, but then pulled them out much too soon, leaving chaos in their wake. A better model can be found next door to Liberia in Sierra Leone, where Britain has quietly stationed thousands of soldiers for three years now. Thanks to their steady presence, that former war zone is making remarkable strides toward peace.

Finally, Bush has also suggested he's going to bless Nigeria's recent offer of safe haven to Taylor if he steps down. Granting amnesty to Liberia's warlord in chief would be a bad mistake, however. Merely deposing an autocrat is never enough; unless trials and justice follow, the dictator and his henchmen hang around and undermine the peace that succeeds them (indeed, Taylor is already promising to return after a "cooling-off period"). This is what happened in Sierra Leone, where, after a disastrous 1999 general amnesty for combatants, it has taken renewed fighting and an international tribunal to stabilize the country. Incidentally, this tribunal has also indicted Taylor for his meddling in Sierra Leone.

Getting Liberia right won't be easy. The mission is full of challenges. To succeed will take courage, cunning and determination. With his surprise decision, Bush has already shown he possesses at least some quantity of all three traits. Now we can only hope he has enough of them--and the guts to stick with the job.