July 2: Should United States Send Troops to Liberia?

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This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, July 2, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: The president leaves Monday for a five-nation trip to Africa, and one place he will not visit is war-torn Liberia (search). But that country was the talk of Washington today, partly because the president personally urged embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor (search) to step aside. It was also partly because word got out that the Pentagon was preparing for a possible military mission there. So is this a place where the U.S. should be sending troops?

For answer, we turn to a Herman Cohen, veteran of 38 years in the State Department, much of it in Africa. He is also the author of a book on the issue of Superpower Intervention in Africa.

Welcome to you, sir.


HUME: So, what is Liberia and why should we care about it, if at all?

COHEN: Well, Liberia was established by Americans 150 years ago and it's always been a...

HUME: How did that happen? Who were these people?

COHEN: Well, there was a feeling in those days that maybe freed slaves and their off -- and their descendants would be better off in Africa. It was kind of a racist view. So money was collected and a colony was established on the coast of West Africa, which is now Liberia, and several thousand people went there. And it grew and grew until became a Republic. And it's been Africa's oldest Republic.

HUME: And Charles Taylor is now the president there. He's agreed to leave but has not done so. What is the deal with him?

COHEN: Well, Charles Taylor invaded the country from outside with the help of Libya and a few other nasty people. And he started a civil war in 1990.

HUME: Now, was it a functioning democracy at all before that?

COHEN: It was not really. It was a dictatorship under a fellow named Samuel Doe (search). They went to war. Samuel doe got killed and there were many peace treaties, which were broken. But by 1997, the Nigerians were there, convinced Taylor to have an election. They had an election. He won under very, terrible circumstances. So, the people felt they better vote for him or he will go back to war and start killing all over again.

But after he got elected, other rebels came in who were looking for revenge. Some ethnic groups that he had messed up during his time. And also people supported by external factors. So, it's been in a state of war for the last 12 years really.

HUME: And is it a -- now, what's the -- and it comes to a head now why, and in what sense?

COHEN: Well, lots of people are suffering. When you have war going on, rebels are advancing on the capital. Everybody moves to the capital, which is on a peninsula right on the Atlantic Ocean and they can't get any food. They can't get any medicine. Bombs are falling all around and someone has to go in there and save them.

HUME: Now, Charles Taylor's agreed to leave, but has refused to do so. One senses that has something to do with the fact that not many -- he's been accused of war crimes and he's a hunted man and he doesn't have anywhere to go.

COHEN: Well, he does. He can go to Nigeria.

HUME: Oh, he can.

COHEN: The Nigerians said, look, we'll take you in. Don't worry. We won't turn you over to the court. Just come over here.

But he's always breaking agreements. He'll go to -- he went to Ghana, signed an agreement. As soon as he gets back home, he says, I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it. So someone going to have to go in there and say, look, get on a plane and go.

HUME: Now, is it -- in your view, does the United States have any vital interests in Liberia other than an historical relationship?

COHEN: You can't say that there are any vital interests. However, if they had gone in 1990 when some of us in government had asked them to do it, all of this wouldn't have happened. And by not intervening, the U.S. spent tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, refugees, people getting killed, sending medicine, sending food. All of this could have been avoided.

HUME: Now, if the U.S. goes in there now, what would be the mission?

COHEN: The mission would be to stabilize the place, get everyone to lay down their arms and set up an interim government with U.N. people coming in there to guide them for a few years. Just like they did in Cambodia or they did in East Timor, I think would be the best example.

HUME: Wouldn't this be an American intervention in a war on kind of on neither side? I mean we're not going to go in there to side with the rebels really, are we or are we?

COHEN: That's the beauty of it. We're the only country in the world that's considered neutral. We don't side with anyone. All the West Africans, who are going to go in there now, they all have their friends. They've all been backing one faction or another. We are neutral. Every one looks up to us. They're begging us to come in. I think they will all throw down their arms.

HUME: Even the rebel factions that would want power would back away from a U.S. force in there? COHEN: Completely.

HUME: Really?

COHEN: This is not Somalia. This is not Iraq. This is Liberia, where everybody wants to be an American.

HUME: So the Americans would be accepted in your view?

COHEN: Oh, I predict it, 100 percent, yes.

HUME: So, this is not a case where we go in there and we get shot up by everything.

COHEN: No. No. Not at all, this is really -- people are begging us to come in.

HUME: Do you know is this the opinion in the State Department? Is this the advice the president is getting so far as you can tell?

COHEN: I believe it is, yes. I believe it is. The Defense Department is, I believe, opposed because they feel they're stretched thin. But I think they just feel it's a waste of time.

HUME: Now, would this force have to be all over the whole country or would just have to be in Monrovia, the capitol or what?

COHEN: I believe they'd be just in Monrovia, where the crucial fighting is going on, where the people are really suffering. And the West African forces can go on into the rest of the country.

HUME: Well, the West African forces, though, they're all rebel factions, though, aren't they with different ambitions and...

COHEN: No. The Nigerians, the Ghanaians and they'll come in there...

HUME: Oh, you're talking about outside forces that are not associated with rebels?

COHEN: That's correct. Yes. That's correct.

HUME: Now, what would be the benefit to the United States to doing this?

COHEN: Well, they would stabilize the country and they would show that we're interested in Africa and we're interested in making peace. You know, the French are right next-door in Ivory Coast. They've stabilized that country. The British are right next-door in Sierra Leone; they've stabilized that place. So there's this gap in the middle. And everyone is saying, well, where are the Americans? What's their contribution?

HUME: Aren't these some of the same people, though, that -- speaking of the French in particular, who were trying to keep us from going into Iraq and that situation there, now dying for us to go in somewhere near them, right?

COHEN: Well, in Africa, we have no problem with the French. We get along very well in every country. We cooperate. Our ambassadors work together. So, there are some places where we don't hate the French.

HUME: Or they don't hate us.

COHEN: Or they don't hate us. That's right.

HUME: So your view is this ought to go?

COHEN: It has to go. I've been waiting 12 years for this moment.

HUME: Well, Mr. Ambassador, thank you for the background and the briefing on this.

COHEN: You're most...

HUME: Very helpful to us.

COHEN: You're most welcome.

HUME: Hope you'll come back.

COHEN: Right.

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