Bush Administration Ponders Liberian Peace Force

Bush administration officials weighed how to help Liberia (search) Tuesday but wouldn't say whether the United States would answer growing international appeals by sending troops to try to end more than a decade of civil war.

President Bush and his National Security Council (search) reached no conclusions in their discussions of the Liberian situation Tuesday morning, an official said. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Bush's advisers had not yet made a recommendation to the president, and another senior official said no decision was imminent.

Bush did not mention the issue in an afternoon speech on the global role of the U.S. military. Behind the scenes, Powell spoke to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search). "The president is examining all of the options, all of the possibilities," Powell said on Fox News. "I wouldn't rule anything in or out yet."

Twice Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer read a carefully calibrated statement on Liberia that sidestepped questions about whether Bush would deploy troops to the West African nation.

"The United States is actively discussing what the next steps should be to help the parties to meet their obligations to cooperate with the joint verification team that is in place to ensure that the cease-fire holds," Fleischer said.

One senior administration official said Bush was reluctant to send troops purely as peacekeepers. But if the troops were given a clear mission as part of a defined coalition, Bush might be more inclined, this official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

That view closely reflected what Bush said as a candidate. "There may be some moments when we use our troops as peacekeepers, but not often," Bush said in a presidential debate with Al Gore in October 2000.

"It must be in our vital interest whether we ever send troops," Bush said then. "The mission must be clear. Soldiers must understand why are we going. The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well-defined."

Another administration official said the White House did not want to take the military option off the table for fear of making headlines just before Bush starts a trip to Africa next Monday.

Annan has suggested the United States take a leadership role in peacekeeping. West African leaders asked on Monday for 2,000 American troops to head a predominantly African force to stop the turmoil and keep the peace. The Africans said they want an answer before Bush leaves for the continent, but administration officials were noncommittal about whether they will have a response by then.

France, Britain and both sides in Liberia's fighting also have pushed for an American role in a peace force for the country founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

The current round of fighting in Liberia began three years ago as rebels began trying to oust President Charles Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war.

Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in the capital, Monrovia, just last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.

Fleischer said the administration has seen encouraging signs of calm.

"The situation in Liberia has been eased, and there's quiet and calm on the streets of Monrovia recently as a result of the international community coming together to work toward the cease-fire," Fleischer said. "The president wants to work with the international community -- we will play a role in that -- to try to bring stability to a post-Taylor government in Liberia."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld opposes sending U.S. troops, according to his aides, because of the heavy commitment of U.S. forces in other parts of the world. Rumsfeld also doubts there is a compelling U.S. interest in Liberia's affairs, these aides say.

At U.N. headquarters Monday, U.S. Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham told the Security Council during closed consultations that the United States wants three conditions met for further discussion about the nature of a peacekeeping force.

According to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity, Cunningham said Washington would insist that Taylor give up power as he promised to do and turn himself over to a special U.N. court in Sierra Leone and that a cease-fire be in place that can win international support. Taylor faces a U.N. indictment on war crimes allegations.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher rejected any suggestion that Taylor cede power in exchange for a dismissal of the charges.

"The charges by the court stand. We support the court and we support its efforts to get justice," Boucher said.