The Liberian Gambit

 President George W.

 President George W. Bush's has yet to decide whether or not to send U.S. troops to join an international peacekeeping force in Liberia, but the balance of political factors involved suggests  he may take the plunge. 

On Tuesday, the president assured President John Kuhor of Ghana, leader of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that the United States would "participate in the process" of bringing peace at last to Liberia, the one African nation with ties to America going back more than a century and a half. But he left open what that participation would mean. Ironically, U.S. intervention in Liberia would be wildly popular with most of its population, at least at first, in striking contrast to Iraq. A team of Pentagon officers that arrived in the Liberian capital Monrovia Monday was enthusiastically welcomed by tens of thousands of people in the capital and outlying villages. The U.S. Army that conquered Iraq in a rapid three week campaign in March and April never received anything like that rapturous welcome. 

Sending a significant contingent of U.S. troops to help restore peace and stability to Liberia therefore would, at least at first, be extremely  popular with most of the Liberian people. And that would play well with the American public back home too. 

Second, it would boost the U.S. strategic presence in West Africa, a move that is in keeping with the Bush administration's determination to develop the region's oil reserves in addition to Iraq's as an alternative to those of Saudi Arabia. 

Liberia has no oil. Nigeria, the giant of West Africa has lots of it. But sending U.S. troops into Liberia would be a signal to Nigeria that the United States is ready to help it share regional burdens with more than words, or even money. And right now, bolstering the U.S. strategic relationship with Nigeria is a top priority with Washington. 

Third, sending U.S. forces to play a constructive role in Liberia would, White House political strategists believe, play well with the 38 million strong African-American community.  The president got only 10 percent of their votes in the November 2000  presidential election, and on current showing looks unlikely to do much  better the next time. There are no successors to J. B. Watts on the immediate horizon to represent African-Americans at all among the GOP majorities in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.  However, if the president can keep his negative ratings down among the African-American community, he can hope for either a low turn-out from them for the Democratic candidate, or that any protest vote might be safely siphoned off to a possible Third Party protest candidate such as the Rev. Al Sharpton. This is especially the case as the two current Democratic frontrunners, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, have yet to kindle any real enthusiasm in Black America. 

Fourth, putting U.S. forces in Liberia is likely to be supported by Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who want to boost Africa's usually forgotten profile among the U.S. public and policymakers alike. And sending the force would also win the president valuable goodwill with black Democrats in Congress, a significant body, who have long been frustrated by Washington's lack of engagement with the region. 

However, on the negative side, sending any kind of U.S. military contingent to West Africa will put significant additional strains on an already badly over-extended U.S. military re-deploying in East Asia, already having its hands full with a serious, organized terror-guerrilla movement in occupied in Iraq, and committed also to proactively fighting the war on terror on many rapidly shifting fronts around the world. 

Further, although Liberia has no significant Muslim population, it is near Nigeria, which has a very significant one indeed, about half its 110 million people. And Northern Nigeria's Muslims have been radicalizing fast.  Putting  U.S. troops in a semi-permanent role in a neighboring West African country could stir up a hornet's nest, energizing anti-American radical groups in the region to join forces with Liberia's embattled President Charles Taylor to start trying to kill them. 

 A decision to deploy some troops on balance seems more likely than not.  The visiting Pentagon team appears structured to assess the kind of deployment, heavy equipment and logistical support that would be needed for such a presence rather than to assess the pros and cons of any deployment in the  first place.   But such a deployment, like the conquest/liberation of Iraq, looks like the kind of commitment which would look and feel very good when it was made, but likely turn out to be an open-ended involvement with hidden costs and complications that only fully reveal themselves afterwards. 


Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.