The Liberian Connection

President Bush's Africa trip this week will take him to many of that continent's success stories. But Liberia, a nation not on his itinerary, is drawing priority attention.

The UN and West African countries want the United States to send 2,000 troops to help end the civil war there. The US forces would join 3,000 West African soldiers.

The country founded by freed American slaves in 1847 has been devastated by 14 years of conflict. Its warlord president, Charles Taylor, stands indicted for war crimes for sponsoring conflicts throughout the region.

Both Mr. Taylor and his opponents, whose human rights record is little better, say they would welcome US troops. Taylor says he'll resign after international peacekeepers arrive; President Bush insists Taylor must go first.

Mr. Bush is right to proceed cautiously. He's sending a "humanitarian assistance team" of military experts to examine the situation and report back first. The American military is stretched thin with unfinished work in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the US has always had a special relationship with Liberia, which was a staunch US ally during the cold war. British and French troops are helping cool down conflicts in nearby Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast that Taylor instigated. The US can't and shouldn't intervene everywhere, but this is a clear instance where it should.

Ending the fighting may take time. Once stability is restored, US troops should quickly be replaced by UN peacekeepers. But the US must stay politically and economically involved in Liberia for the long term.

If another nation grants Taylor asylum, as Nigeria has offered, it would be harboring an international fugitive. But he must resign and leave Liberia. Whichever country receives him should then deliver him up for trial reasonably soon.

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