WASHINGTON – The Bush administration struggled Wednesday with the question of whether it should send peacekeepers to Liberia (search), an idea opposed by a U.S. military already stretched thin with other commitments around the world.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) attended a White House meeting Wednesday morning on the issue after the National Security Council failed to agree on a course of action the day before, officials said.
Rumsfeld is opposed to international proposals that the United States send 2,000 troops to head a force of 3,000 peacekeepers in the West African nation.
Still, Rumsfeld took with him to Wednesday's meeting a contingency plan for such a deployment, should the president order it. The Pentagon routinely works up and keeps on hand such plans for numerous problems around the world.
More than 10,000 American troops are still working in and around Afghanistan since the beginning of the global war on terror in September 2001 and nearly 150,000 troops are stationed in a violent and troubled postwar Iraq.
Defense officials say they are trying to avoid committing troops to Liberia as well.
Rumsfeld also doubts there is a compelling U.S. interest in Liberia's affairs, aides say.
Senior officials said Tuesday that no decision was imminent. But thousands of Liberians celebrated outside the U.S. Embassy in the Liberian capital of Monrovia (search) late Tuesday as rumors spread about possible U.S. intervention.
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.
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.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (search) 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 (search), who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war.
Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in Monrovia just last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.