Days before he makes his first trip to Africa, President Bush is facing increasing pressure to intervene to end the civil war in Liberia, including sending peace-keeping troops to the West African nation as its neighbors and some key U.S. allies are calling for the United States to do.
President Bush will not be stopping in Liberia on his five-nation trip to Africa next week. But the situation there has now become a front-burner issue as his administration weighs a decision about whether to intervene militarily in one of Africa's most brutal civil wars.
"I think this is the moment of truth for Liberia and for the international community," said John Prendergast, an Africa expert who worked at the White House National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
"The endgame is drawing near," Mr. Prendergast went on to say. "With a judicious introduction of U.S. force and with some very, very adept diplomacy, I think we could actually see a resolution in Liberia over time. Therefore it's time for the U.S. to step up."
"If he goes to Senegal and Nigeria and he says Liberia is not our problem, it's a West Africa problem, this will not go down very well," explained Herman Cohen, who was the top U.S. diplomat for Africa during the first Bush administration.
The last time the United States sent troops to directly intervene in an African conflict was in Somalia in 1992. In the past, it has left the job of peace-keeping in Liberia to a multinational West African force. But that failed to bring lasting peace.
At the White House Tuesday, Spokesman Ari Fleischer stressed that the administration has yet to decide on a course of action.
"The president is determined to help the people of Liberia to find a path to peace. The exact steps that could be taken are still under review," he said.
West African nations as well as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan are calling for U.S. military intervention for a nation founded by freed American slaves where many look to the United States as a protector. President Bush has called on Liberian President Charles Taylor, now an indicted war crimes suspect, to step down but has not said what he would do if the Liberian leader refuses.
"If the U.S. sends forces in there, they can put Taylor on a plane and take him out of the country," explained Herman Cohen. "I don't think he'd have anything to say about that. It doesn't have to be forcibly. He just has to be invited nicely and I'm sure he'll go."
Diplomats at the United Nations tell The Associated Press the Liberian leader has been offered safe passage to Nigeria but he rejected the offer because it did not include a guarantee that the U.N. backed war crimes tribunal, which issued his indictment, would not seek his arrest.
"I think he can go to a country which will not surrender him," explained Mr. Cohen. "For example, the Ghanaian president said this indictment is complicating things and it's uncalled for. He can go to Ghana or Burkina Faso and I'm sure he'll be safe."
Not so, says David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the U.N. backed war crimes tribunal. "When the inevitable possibly happens, there is still an obligation to turn alive Charles Taylor over to the court so he can be publicly and fairly tried for the crimes for which he's charged," he said.
The Liberian leader has refused to resign unless the indictment against him is lifted, something the chief prosecutor has said cannot happen.