Stop Liberia's plunder

August 14, 2003

THE LONG-OVERDUE resignation and exit of President Charles Taylor offers a short window of opportunity for Liberia to regain stability and peace. The United States and the rest of the international community should use it to prevent the West African country from sliding into a new nightmare of suffering.

Any hesitation at this point will only aggravate a dangerous power vacuum. Fourteen years of constant turmoil have torn apart Liberia's social fabric. Key institutions are in a shambles. And everyone considers Moses Blah, the new president, only a caretaker until new elections can be held.

That transition is likely to be tortuous and will take months. Meanwhile, Liberia is up for grabs.

Liberia is often called one of Africa's poorest countries. In fact, it has plenty of riches: diamonds, gold and lumber. That's why Liberia and its similarly endowed neighbors have had so much trouble recently with greedy and plundering warlords. The leaders enriched themselves, while the populations suffered.

Mr. Taylor, a convicted embezzler who escaped from a U.S. prison and is now an indicted war criminal, was one of those plunderers. Others wait eagerly in the wings.

This remaining threat is a powerful reason why President Bush, after weeks of vacillation, should demonstrate resolve and send a detachment of U.S. Marines ashore. Their presence would signal to all would-be adventurers that Washington is fully behind the West African countries' peacekeeping mission and committed to building a new and workable Liberia. The risks are negligible. By now, it is clear that Liberians would welcome them with joy and relief.

Such a display of American sentiment would also make another point. It would prove to Liberians that evangelist Pat Robertson represented only himself when he tried to drum up support for Mr. Taylor, who had granted him a speculative multi-million-dollar gold prospecting license.

In arguments to both Liberian and American audiences, the televangelist portrayed the embattled Mr. Taylor as a defender of Christian values.

"The Christian nations of Africa are right now under assault by Muslims funded either by Saudi Arabia or Libya," he declared a month ago. "If the Taylor government falls, the Muslim rebels are hoping to overrun Liberia, which is a predominantly Christian nation."

Now that Mr. Taylor is gone, it is important for all Liberians to know that the United States, their country's longtime ally, rejects such harmful demagoguery. The insurrection against Mr. Taylor was never driven by religious enmities but by people's anger toward his greed, misgovernment and betrayal of democratic ideals.

Liberia has not asked the United States for much. That's why the gift of active and constructive engagement is now in order.

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