Rather than remain a spectator as the people of Liberia are once more brutalized by bands of thugs, the United States government should develop and implement a policy consistent with its international obligations and capabilities.
No country in the world has given the US more consistent support than Liberia. At American urging, Liberia entered World War I and World War II, facilitating the Allied victory in 1945 by providing crucially needed rubber and by welcoming the American troops who built and guarded strategic military transport facilities. During the cold war, Liberia allowed the US to build and operate on its soil major communications, navigational, and foreign broadcast installations. American military aircraft enjoyed unrestricted access.
Liberian diplomatic support for the US was unreserved. Liberia led pro-Western forces in Africa as the continent gained independence and the Soviets sought influence and advantage. The first African state to restore relations with Israel, Liberia also was outspoken in its defiance of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi's efforts to undermine American influence in Africa.
This "special relationship" proved to be one-sided when Liberia most needed US help. In 1989, Libyan-backed insurgents moved against the corrupt regime of Samuel Doe. The US dispatched a naval task force to Liberian waters, but it sailed away after evacuating foreigners, leaving 150,000 Liberians to die in a power struggle between egotistic and greedy warlords.
Humanitarian aid became a sop for America's lack of will to intervene, even diplomatically. US envoys were barred from mediation efforts. And without US support, there was no chance for a United Nations role of the type that brought peace to Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola. When West African governments organized their own peacekeeping force, the US provided only token support. French and Ivory Coast assistance to convicted felon Charles Taylor provoked no serious US objection.
In August 1995, when West African diplomacy produced a settlement widely considered to have a chance of success, the US offered only token backing for the essential peacekeeping element. Its tardy delivery further undermined the fragile accords. Liberians who looked to Washington for help found it more interested in restoring peace in African countries where the US had no historic interest than in a nation founded by Americans that was a friend and ally for more than 150 years.
As another American naval flotilla cruises Liberian waters, the US has the opportunity and ability to protect Liberia's people from the war criminals who rape their daughters and turn their sons into drugged "boy-soldier" killers. US marines should go ashore after giving the warlords time to evacuate the capital. They will find a friendly population desperate for the food, medicine, shelter, and other necessities the humanitarian agencies currently can't provide because of the warlords - a population eager to form a transitional government.
During a three-to-six-month period, a US presence could give the West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) the breathing space needed to reform, retrain, and re-equip. The US could furnish ECOMOG badly needed training, vehicles, and other military items.
US diplomats, meanwhile, could make it clear at senior government levels in Paris, Abidjan, and elsewhere that continued support for the warlords will have real consequences for relations with Washington. If the Ivory Coast closes its borders to shipments of logs and other exports by the warlords, their ability to import arms and challenge ECOMOG will decline.
US diplomats and soldiers have demonstrated great courage in rescuing Americans from Monrovia's chaos for the third time in six years. The American taxpayer has paid dearly for these limited interventions and assistance to Liberians uprooted by the conflict. Rather than resume the largely passive role that has entailed such danger, expense, and misery, the US should exhibit in Liberia the leadership that has helped it resolve conflicts elsewhere in Africa.