NOW THAT the vanguard of West African peacekeeping forces has arrived in Liberia, discredited President Charles Taylor is the greatest obstacle to ending hostilities.
Mr. Taylor must be held to his promise to cede power by next Monday, otherwise the whole peacekeeping contingent could be caught in a crossfire between his desperate loyalists and rebels who control most of the country. If he continues his cynical delay game past his self-imposed deadline, Nigeria ought to withdraw its offer for asylum -- and Mr. Taylor should be arrested and prosecuted as an indicted war criminal for his plunder during neighboring Sierra Leone's civil war.
Liberians clearly cannot wait to get rid of him. The hundreds of civilians who scrambled onto the runway of an airport to greet the Nigerian troops yesterday underscored that Liberia is not another Somalia, which has haunted U.S. policy-makers since 18 Americans died in an ambush that led to a 17-hour battle in 1993.
In this case, the fighting gangs -- including the Liberian armed forces -- are ill-equipped, unpaid and starving. What's more, Liberians welcome outside intervention. They cannot understand why the United States still refuses to send troops to bring peace to the country that was created in the 1820s as a refuge for America's free blacks and repatriated slaves. But there's still time for the United States, which was the mainstay of Liberian governments until the 1970s, to fully exercise its clout.
Granted, the long-overdue West African intervention would have taken longer yet without the United States playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role. But now, with some 2,300 U.S. Marines approaching the coast, it is time for President Bush to end his vacillation and authorize a limited task force to join the peacekeepers.
They could even adopt Liberia's state motto as their slogan: "The love of liberty brought us here." Liberian combatants on all sides would grasp this potent symbolism.
More important, the arrival of U.S. Marines would signal to President Taylor that his bluff has been called. He would have the choice to leave or face the consequences. Quite likely, he would sneak out, just as he did more than a decade ago when, after being convicted of embezzlement, he escaped from a Massachusetts prison.
For Charles Taylor, the time is up.