The United States has sent a senior diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner, to West Africa for talks on the Liberian crisis. And American naval ships are positioned off the coast of Liberia, ready to support peacekeeping efforts led by West African countries. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says American forces will likely provide logistical and communications support for troops sent by the Economic Community of West African States.
American analysts are divided over whether U.S. involvement in Liberia would be a waste of money and resources or a humanitarian gesture that would boost the moral authority of the Bush administration.
The two views are illustrated by two Washington-based analysts Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation and Joe Siegel of the Council of Foreign Relations.
Mr. Siegel favors U.S. intervention. "During President Bush's trip to Africa, a key theme at each stop was 'America Cares about Africa' yet as the Liberian crisis has unfolded, we have deferred," he said. "That is having a detrimental effect on world perceptions of U.S. moral leadership. This is leadership we need to exert if we want cooperation for priorities like the war on terrorism and efforts to interdict the proliferation of illicit weapons materials."
But analyst Jack Spencer makes the case for not sending U.S. peacekeepers. "It concerns me sending 2,000 Marines into a war zone that has little to nothing to do with America's national security," said Mr. Spencer, who is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security at the Heritage Foundation. "I would not support any international peace keeping force because there is no peace to be kept."
Joe Siegel says the mission would be humanitarian and would help appease critics of U.S. military force around the world. He also says the United States has a moral reason to intervene: Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, and many Liberians are calling for the U.S. to intervene, just as France and Britain have intervened in civil wars in their former African colonies, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.
Mr. Siegel says the United States also has responsibilities stemming from the Cold War: he says Liberia's civil war might not have erupted if Washington had challenged the disputed outcome of elections won by Samuel Doe in 1985. Many said the polls were rigged, and civil unrest began shortly afterward.
Mr. Spencer disagrees with the suggestion that the United States has any special obligation to Liberia. "Less than three percent of Liberia's current population is descended from American slaves. [Moreover] the U.S. has cultural histories with the entire continent," he said. "African Americans are not just Liberians, they come from all over the continent and all over the world. So to say we have a unique historical argument is insane because [Americans] have connections everywhere."
Many analysts who do not support American intervention say the United States has no vital interests in Liberia. But Mr. Siegel disagrees and points to a report by European law enforcement agencies that say Liberian president Charles Taylor sold diamonds to al Qaida. And a U.N. Special Court on Sierra Leone says he is harboring elements of al-Qaida, as well as terrorists from the Middle East.
Mr. Siegel also says the United States is trying to promote economic development in Africa, but military intervention led by Nigeria alone would sap it of the resources needed to build its economy.
"We get 15 percent of our oil from Africa and that will increase to 25 percent in 10 years," he said. "If West Africa continues to be unstable, the prospect of realizing these potential economic benefits will be constrained, especially since we are looking to Nigeria to take the lead in resolving the Liberia situation; this will further drain their political and organizational resources to deal with the problem."
But for Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation, it's the United States that would be wasting precious financial and military resources. He says the United States, which already has large troop deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, has a problem rotating troops in the field.
Mr. Spencer says other countries can lead the humanitarian relief efforts in Liberia, although he says at this point that it would not be wise for any country to send peacekeepers.
"Seeing people die in the streets of Liberia and allowing it to happen for the long term future of the country is a tough decision to make, but nonetheless I think these are the tough decisions that need to be made to ensure the long term stability of Liberia," he said. "I think that historical evidence shows that problems get resolved from within even with violence. Violence is not necessarily a bad thing if it resolved the problem."
Mr. Spencer says there are many factions involved in the fighting in Liberia, some which may not have clear command and control. He says it's not likely that there will be peace unless one side wins, or unless external forces intervene on behalf of one side, a move the analyst does not support.
Others disagree. This week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the U.N. Security Council to send a multi-national peace keeping force to Liberia as soon as possible. He said the force should have in his words a robust mandate to ensure it has a credible deterrent capability.
Joe Siegel of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks Liberia's factions will stop fighting when peacekeepers arrive. He says U.S. troops would stay in Liberia for up to six months, until the creation of an interim government.
Mr. Siegel says U.N. troops should remain until a national army is re-established. He says sending forces to Monrovia would cost less than keeping troops in Iraq for one week. He says a lesson learned from the post-Cold War era is that intervention works best when a first rate military takes the lead with the technical support of other troops. In Liberia, he says the American troops would be under U-S command and would provide back-up in case United Nations forces can not control Liberia's armed factions.
But Mr. Spencer of the Heritage Foundation says U.S. intervention is too costly. American troops could also become targets of Liberian factions, and of what he calls "the international left." He says intervention would provide critics with an opportunity to harass U.S. policy makers and soldiers with accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. American forces, he says, are best at fighting wars and getting weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of tyrants, not peace keeping.