President Bush on Thursday appeared to pave the way for a U.S. military intervention in Liberia by declaring that America had a "unique history" with the troubled West African country, but he linked the dispatch of U.S. troops to the departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor.
Although the president's top national security advisers said that Bush has yet to make a decision about committing troops to Liberia, officials said they envisage a U.S. force of up to 2,000 troops, probably mainly Marines. They said they believed it would be possible to limit any peacekeeping mission to several months, after which the United Nations would take over.
Speaking to a group of African journalists four days before he leaves on his first trip to Africa as president, Bush referred to the close historical ties between the United States and Liberia, which was founded in 1822 as a homeland for freed American slaves. He said this "unique history" had created "a certain sense of expectations" about the U.S. role in restoring stability to a country that has been wracked by civil war for most of the past 13 years, at a cost of a quarter of a million lives.
"But I also want to make sure that there are certain expectations (that have to be) met, as well," the president said. "And one expectation is, Mr. Taylor has got to leave."
Bush said he will carry a message of compassion when he leaves Monday for Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. He will not visit Liberia.
The dispatch of U.S. troops to Liberia on an essentially humanitarian peacekeeping mission would mark a significant political departure for Bush, who denounced the concept of "nation-building" during a 2000 presidential election debate. At that time, Bush said that U.S. military interventions in foreign countries had to meet three tests: "It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious."
Asked about these comments Thursday, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice said the president was still "considering his options." She said Bush believed that the stability of West Africa was "important to U.S. interests" as well as being vital to progress on a continent to which the president has "devoted a lot of time and energy."
Another factor influencing the administration, said Rice, was the realization in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that "failed states" can spawn "so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism." She described Washington's relationship with Liberia as "unlike any place else on the continent," and said the U.S. had an obligation to act with regional powers to prevent "humanitarian disasters."
"There was never a sense that you simply stand back and say we aren't going to touch a situation like this," Rice said. "The president believes in trying to be proactive."
U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said the emerging U.S. strategy to restore stability to Liberia includes a mixture of political and military components, including working with neighboring West African countries to create a transitional administration for the country of 3.5-million people. Negotiations are already under way through U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the departure of Taylor, the descendant of a freed American slave who was elected president in 1997 after mounting a seven-year armed rebellion against the former Liberian government.
U.S. officials blame Taylor's cruel and erratic style of leadership for much of the suffering and chaos experienced by Liberia over the past decade, and say it's impossible to put an end to the country's civil war as long as he's in power. They note that he has stirred up rebellions in other West African countries, and an international war crimes tribunal indicted him last month on charges of committing crimes against humanity after numerous allegations of rape, mutilation, sexual slavery, and use of child soldiers.
The U.S. military commander in Europe has been ordered to begin planning for an intervention, officials said. A directive called a "warning order" was sent overnight to Gen. James Jones, asking him to give the Pentagon his estimate of how the situation in the West African nation might be handled, the Associated Press reported, quoting defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There is international pressure on Bush to send 2,000 troops to help enforce a cease-fire. Another military option was to send 500 to 1,000 Americans who might coordinate logistics for any peacekeeping mission, provide it with communications equipment and assist nongovernmental organizations in the area, defense officials said.
Taking that lesser role would allow the United States to keep down the number of Americans required _ a big consideration with so many already deployed for stabilization in postwar Iraq, in Afghanistan and for the counterterror war.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said the additional deployment of U.S. troops would be manageable but should be approached cautiously.
"We must look very prudently when we ask more of them," he said. Warner spoke at a news conference with senators just returned from Iraq.
The committee's top Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan, said he was "concerned about U.S. troops being stretched too thin" though he was willing to consider a mission if other countries would help in Iraq.
More than 10,000 U.S. troops are deployed in and around Afghanistan and nearly 150,000 in troubled postwar Iraq.
Military officials said any peacekeeping force, which would also include several thousand soldiers from African nations, would establish order in the capital Monrovia, which has been under the control of soldiers loyal to Taylor. It would also help create the conditions for a transitional administration, probably under the auspices of the United Nations, leading up to new elections.
The force would be endorsed by the United Nations but not overseen by it. This would allow U.S. soldiers to remain under U.S. command, avoiding the much-criticized dual chain of command that some historians argue led to the disastrous U.S. mission to Somalia a decade ago, culminating in the Black Hawk Down firefight that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead.
Many Liberians are pleading for a U.S. intervention.
Thousands marched Thursday behind an American flag to the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, pleading for Bush to send troops to help stop the years of bloody civil war in their nation.
"No more Taylor, we want Bush, we want peace," the crowd chanted.
However, across town, 300 people rallied in support of Taylor, saying his departure would mean the United States could oust any African leader it opposed.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.