WASHINGTON - Facing international pressure to intervene militarily in Liberia, the Bush administration said yesterday that it was "actively discussing" a U.S. role there and did not rule out sending U.S. troops to the war-torn West African nation.
Administration officials have been sending ever-stronger signals in recent days that Washington is edging away from its reluctance to lend U.S. troops for international peacekeeping missions.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "We're actively discussing how best to support the international efforts to help Liberia return to peace and to the rule of law." The goal, he said, would be to make sure that a tenuous cease-fire takes root.
Asked specifically whether President Bush was considering sending U.S. troops to Liberia, the spokesman said, "I'm not ruling it out." The statement, coming on top of others by administration officials acknowledging a stepped-up focus on Liberia and mounting pressure from international leaders for a broader U.S. role, was the most direct acknowledgment to date that Bush might be on the verge of expanding the U.S. military commitment overseas - and of sending troops on a peacekeeping mission that the president originally disparaged.
Before taking office, Bush expressed opposition to "nation-building" roles for the United States in general, and peacekeeping work by the U.S. military in particular.
The debate within the administration over whether to lead an international peacekeeping force in Liberia has intensified as the security situation in the African nation has continued to deteriorate and the United Nations has stepped up its pleas for U.S. help.
Adding to the urgency is Bush's impending departure on a five-day trip to Africa. The president is to leave Monday for Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria.
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council conducted an emergency meeting on the situation in Liberia, adding to the pressure on Washington to take on a military leadership role.
Over the weekend, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a multinational force to prevent more bloodshed in Liberia. He reinforced that message Monday in Geneva, where he said the United States has a special responsibility for Liberia, founded in the 1800s by returned American slaves.
James Gerstanzang writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.