MR. MORALES: Hundreds of Nigerian troops are on the ground in the Liberian capital of Monrovia -- the first of some 3,200 West African peacekeepers who are expected to help bring an end to Liberia's 14-year civil war.
Will the peacekeeping mission work? Does peace hinge on whether President Charles Taylor leaves office? And what role should the United States play?
Joining me to examine the crisis in Liberia are: Stephen Morrison, Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington; and economist George Ayittey of American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation, also in the nation's capital.
Let's start with George Ayittey. What are the prospects for international peacekeepers to bring stability to Liberia?
MR. AYITTEY: First of all, it depends on whether Charles Taylor honors his words and leaves. So far, he has been reneging. Now he's demanding that the U.N. indictment against him be lifted before he leaves Liberia. I think he is playing the diplomatic game. And I think that the West African peacekeepers who are there should call his bluff and just go in there and take over Monrovia and get him out.
MR. MORALES: Stephen Morrison, let me put that same question to you.
MR. MORRISON: Everyone is waiting to see what happens with Taylor. His space to maneuver is narrowing significantly. The other critical transition here is getting the peacekeepers into Freeport and getting them in there without a big "dust up" [i.e., battle] between the troops and the LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] insurgents.
MR. MORALES: Most observers expect that at some point, Charles Taylor will step down or be deposed in some manner. Let me stay with you, Stephen Morrison, for just a moment. Is he the key to peace in Liberia in the long term?
MR. MORRISON: Extricating him from the situation and moving into some sort of negotiated civilian control transitional arrangement -- that's the key step. Getting Taylor out of the picture is going to leave a bit of wreckage behind as well as the residual remnants of his government, not the least of which are the various militia groups that have committed considerable numbers of human rights abuses and atrocities. They're well armed and they're desperate. And it's not yet clear how they're going to be handled.
MR. MORALES: George Ayittey?
MR. AYITTEY: I would say that I agree with Steve on the fact that extricating Charles Taylor from Liberia is going to be somewhat dicey. But I also think that this whole diplomatic dance [by Mr. Taylor] has been enhancing Charles Taylor's stature [at home] and we should recognize him as the criminal that he is. He lacks legitimacy. His government's control of Liberia doesn't extend beyond the immediate confines of Monrovia. His is not legitimate. And all of this talk about getting Charles Taylor out makes it look as if he's the centerpiece of the whole peace process, which in my view he is not. We also have to consider the other side of the coin -- that is the rebels' position. They are awaiting their chance to seize power. And I think what will happen later on will depend on whether the rebels will be willing to accept an interim government of which they are not a part. Personally, I would like to see some kind of interim board set up to rule Liberia for five or ten years so as to build up the country's broken down and collapsed institutions before opening up the whole process for elections. We should not forget that in Liberia we have had this cycle of perfidious betrayal. Liberians like Samuel Doe and then Charles Taylor. And then the rebel leaders have committed serious human rights violations. So there has been very little integrity to go by.
MR. MORRISON: I think what George is pointing to is the very uncomfortable and difficult issue of: What do you do when you have a failed democracy? What do you do when you have the trappings of democracy, but in fact power rests in the hands of armed warlords, and that process leads to the criminalization of the regime, and the destabilization and wrecking of the surrounding of surrounding region? And that's the position that the international community finds itself in right now. It's attempting to push back on those armed warlords and reduce their power, and to put in place long-term U.N. peacekeeping operation that can pacify and stabilize the entire country. And then behind it, we can bring forward an interim civilian government that would draw on the unarmed -- both inside and outside Liberia -- who would be prepared to come back and attempt to reconstruct the state and mode of governance there. It's a very difficult thing to do. It's very much the international system taking over Liberia as an interim, de facto protectorate.
MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we have about a minute left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with George Ayittey: What can or should the United States do with respect to Liberia?
MR. AYITTEY: I think that so far what the U.S. is doing is sending a very small, investigative team into Liberia to support the West African initiative. I think what the U.S. can do is provide logistical support. The U.S. should not insert any large scale troops in Liberia. Liberia is a West African problem that demands a West African solution.
MR. MORALES: And Stephen Morrison, the last word to you.
MR. MORRISON: The U.S. has been extremely cautious; I think they have been too cautious. They played a bluff. The bluff was called. That allowed the time and space for the LURD insurgents [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] to grab the country's major seaport. Circumstances worsened dramatically on the humanitarian side with mortars and stray bullets killing civilians. If the U.S. had been willing to put in place 400 or 500 tough troops with a tough mandate six weeks ago in Monrovia, the port could have been kept open. But that's the past. Today, you have competent Nigerian units, you have Americans there to support them. I'm hoping that the American position will not be to short change the type of support to do what is required and necessary. President Bush has not ruled out enlarging the form of support, as needed. My hope is that in the coming weeks, as the tough part starts to set in, we are there to support the Nigerians beyond simply in logistics and communications.
MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: Stephen Morrison, Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and George Ayittey, President of the Free Africa Foundation.