Minimum Force in Liberia

President Bush has tried to have it both ways on Liberia - end the civil war without getting bogged down in a large troop deployment. It seems to be working - so far.

Mr. Bush was under heavy pressure from many quarters to send in troops to stop the fighting between the forces of President Charles Taylor and two rebel groups - fighting in which civilians were the main victims. But the US president insisted that before US troops could land, Mr. Taylor - who is wanted on international war-crimes charges - must first leave the country.

Meanwhile, the US sailed 2,300 marines from the Middle East to West Africa - a trip of several days - and engaged in heavy diplomatic lifting to help West African governments deal with the crisis. After weeks of furious additional fighting - in which rebels penetrated into Monrovia and Buchanan - the sides agreed to deployment of 1,000 Nigerian peacekeepers. That mostly ended the shooting, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, Taylor departed the country, handing power over to his vice president, Moses Blah.

While this was going on, a policy battle was under way in Washington over the size of the potential US deployment. The State Department reportedly wanted to land a large contingent of 800 marines, but the Pentagon resisted. With Taylor gone, Bush settled on a small force of 200 marines, joining about 100 already in Monrovia, mostly guarding the US Embassy. About 150 will back up Nigerian peacekeepers, while others work to get food and aid to the beleaguered civilian population.

The Marines have been joyously received by the local population, which begged the US to intervene. Rebels have pulled their forces back from the capital, but the situation around Buchanan remains tense.

The three Liberian factions are now negotiating over an interim government to take power in October - a peace accord appears imminent. Some observers suggest establishing a UN trusteeship to rule and rehabilitate the country - an idea the UN special representative, Jacques Klein, rejects. Either scenario would require additional peacekeepers and sustained international involvement - including from the US.

If a permanent peace takes hold, Bush will have achieved the goal of ending the war with minimum US involvement and exposure. But if fighting flares again, more marines will be needed on the ground.

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