WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- The Bush administration, under growing pressure from African and European countries, is debating whether to lead an armed peacekeeping mission to Liberia or find some other path to help end a bloody civil war there, officials said yesterday.
A week before President Bush's first trip to the continent since entering the White House, the administration is described by diplomats and analysts as sharply divided on whether to lead an international stabilization force in the impoverished West African nation, founded 150 years ago by freed American slaves.
State Department officials have pressed the case for leading a multinational force, which would assign a major African peacekeeping role to American troops for the first time since the United States pulled its forces out of Somalia in 1994, diplomats said.
The Pentagon, wary of an open-ended commitment, and with 146,000 U.S. troops fighting pockets of resistance in Iraq, wants to train African troops to do the job, backed by U.S. equipment and intelligence help.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking with reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, suggested that the situation was less dire than it appeared to be last week, when European and African leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan began urging that the United States send troops to Liberia.
"The reports out of Liberia tend to come up and go down in terms of urgency or lack of urgency," Rumsfeld said. "It was relatively calm there, the latest reports. And that's a call the president would make, if and when he decided to make such a call."
Rumsfeld added that "we're looking at a range of options." Mentioning West African forces that have been trained by the United States, he said, "They've been well trained. We've helped equip them.
"And to the extent they've been deployed, I've been told that they've handled themselves well."
Decade of conflict
Liberia has been torn by conflict for much of the past decade, and its president, Charles Taylor, is now cornered and fighting for his survival, having been indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone. Bush called last week for Taylor to step down.
Opponents of U.S. intervention say that for a peacekeeping force to achieve any lasting result, a political process aimed at bringing peace needs to be well under way beforehand, and chances of that happening appear to be slim.
"Nobody knows what it's going to take" to stabilize Liberia, one U.S. official said. "We don't even know if 100,000 troops" would bring a solution.
But proponents fear that without the United States taking the lead, West African states will be reluctant to intervene, and Liberia will continue on to descend into chaos as the death toll and humanitarian crisis mount.
West African countries have reportedly offered to send 3,600 troops in a force led by 2,000 Americans.
European leaders argue that France and Britain have each brought a measure of stability by sending troops, respectively, to Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, both former colonies.
"What we need now is the political will to act in face of this gross violation of human rights, this serious and tragic humanitarian situation, with innocent civilians caught in the middle," Annan said yesterday in Geneva.
"There are lots of expectations that the U.S. may be prepared to lead this force. Of course, that is a sovereign decision for them to take, but all eyes are on them."
`Spiral into chaos'
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the African program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said administration officials pressing for intervention are making the case that "there's a big vulnerability [for the United States] if we're seen allowing this place to spiral into chaos."
Lining up on this side of the debate, he said, are Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Bush's top adviser on Africa, Jendayi E. Frazer.
Such a stance seems to conflict with Powell's well-known reluctance to commit American forces to dangerous, seemingly open-ended missions. A senior State Department official, asked about the apparent conflict, declined to discuss Powell's views because no decision had been made.
"We are looking at a variety of options and plans, and we will discuss it in greater detail tomorrow, but no decisions have been made yet," Powell said last night on the PBS Newshour program.
Meanwhile, pressure for American action of some sort is building in advance of the president's five-day trip to South Africa, Senegal, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria that begins July 7.
"It would be an embarrassment if he doesn't have a clear option" to explain on his trip, Morrison said.
While the United States never colonized Liberia, American companies profited from its rubber and Liberia served as an intelligence listening post for the United States during the Cold War, noted Emira Woods, a Liberian who is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, part of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal Washington think tank.
"This may be an opportunity," she said, "to show Africa that the United States can be part of a multilateral effort on an issue of critical importance for the continent."