Once again, chaos rules in a third-world nation most Americans would have trouble finding on a map. And once again, the international community is torn between a desire to help and a fear of getting mired in an intractable domestic dispute.
As factional fighting rages out of control in the West African nation of Liberia - placing innocent civilians, an eight-month peace accord, and the nation's very viability at risk - the question of what outsiders can do has revived a longstanding debate.
"Liberia may have to solve its own problems," says Gray Cowan, an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There are certain situations that are not reconcilable on any kind of rational basis, and Liberia is one of them. I don't think you can help very much unless you are prepared to send overwhelming force and keep it there for a very long time."
"I think the US can help, by bringing the opposing factions to the bargaining table and using carrots and sticks to get them to agree to a powersharing arrangement that will last," responds Adonis Hoffman, an African specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Overshadowing the debate are memories of Somalia, where US and United Nations peacekeepers tried and failed to end a bloody civil war. Burned by the Somalia experience, the White House and Congress - not to mention other Western nations - are wary of taking new risks for peace in a strategically unimportant nation.
But Western leaders also recall Rwanda, another African nation that endured an orgy of recent violence that left nearly 1 million dead as the world community stood by.
Liberia's season of troubles began in 1989 when Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led an invasion from the Ivory Coast that toppled the country's president, Samuel Doe. After six years of bloodletting, rival warlords last August agreed to a peace accord calling for a transitional government and national elections.
But new factional fighting, which broke out last month in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, has placed the future of the so-called "Abuja" accord in doubt.
Out of Africa
Since World War II, outside powers have been reluctant to get involved in the internal affairs of Africa except in nations, like Angola, that were surrogate theaters of the cold war. A notable exception has been France, which has intervened to restore order in former colonies including Chad, the Central African Republic, and, most recently, the Comoros Islands.
"It reaches the point where the French say enough is enough and send in their own forces," notes Mr. Cowan.
In the absence of such outside intervention in Liberia, a group of West African nations - members the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - formed their own peacekeeping force, known as ECOMOG, to demobilize and disarm the Liberian factions and pave the way for national elections.
The mostly Nigerian contingent, which has had as many as 12,000 troops, is said to be an unprecedented example of a regional peacekeeping force operating outside UN auspices.
ECOMOG is credited with helping maintain order in Liberia but is blamed for declining discipline and for failing to curb the current unrest in Monrovia.
Analysts say one way to restore order in Liberia is to give the African force the resources it needs to do the job.
Last year, ECOMOG asked Western donors for $90 million to help implement the Abuja agreement. The United States, which had already given $70 million to ECOMOG, pledged $30 million more towards the new request, but the money is being withheld until "the peacekeepers are prepared to demonstrate a neutral and effective role" in Liberia, according to one US official.
The US, other Western donors, and Japan have given additional money directly to Liberia for humanitarian purposes and to buttress the Abuja peace process.
"It's easy to be critical of the African force, but it's the only game in town," says Reed Kramer, managing editor of the Africa News Service, a nonprofit news agency based in Durham, N.C. "There's no other way to stop the fighting except to get ECOMOG to separate the fighters and get them out of the city."
US walks softly
The other way to restore order is for the US to use the unique influence it enjoys in a nation that was founded as a homeland for freed US slaves - and for which, some analysts and US officials believe, the US may have a degree of moral responsibility.
"The good news about the US-Liberian relationship is that the Liberians implicitly trust the US and want the engagement of the US," says Mr. Hoffman.
ECOWAS has invited the rival warlords to a meeting in Accra, Ghana, tomorrow and Wednesday. With the US represented at the bargaining table - which US officials now confirm - all parties are more likely to attend, Hoffman says. The US can also deliver the blunt message that any faction that gains power in Liberia outside the framework of a negotiated agreement will be cut off from international financial aid.
"With minimal effort, the $30 million we pledged, and a little leadership, we can get the parties to sign a power-sharing agreement that will work," says Hoffman.
The American leadership required may be somewhat harder to come by for domestic reasons, notes another Washington-based Africa expert, who says that "the whole decisionmaking process is complicated by elections and different points of view on [Capitol] Hill."
"When people are starving you try to do something, but when a political settlement is needed there's a limit to what you can do," adds Cowan.