NPR's Weekend Edition

Should U.S. Troops Be Deployed to Liberia?

SCOTT SIMON: Yesterday President Bush dispatched a team of US military experts to Liberia to prepare for a possible deployment of US troops there. All sides of Liberia's festering civil war have called on the US to intervene, as has a rising chorus from the international community. Every entreaty has stressed the singular relationship between the two countries. Susan Rice is in our studios this morning. She was assistant secretary of State for African Affairs in the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Thanks very much for being with us, Dr. Rice. And how significant do you see the announcement of this deployment, first, of the team of experts?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think the team of experts will go and take a look at the situation on the ground and consult with people in the embassy. But, frankly, it's not necessary for this team to have been dispatched in order for the president to make the decision that he needs to make about whether to send a serious peacekeeping mission. I think, in fact, it was probably designed not only to gather information but to buy time, as he waits for President Taylor to decide whether or not he's going to leave the country.

SIMON: And forgive for using perhaps a popular vulgarism, but is there a game of chicken going on between the administration and Charles Taylor? Charles Taylor says he'll leave but not until the troops get there. And the administration is saying, 'We're not going to put troops on the ground there until he leaves.'

RICE: Well, I think Charles Taylor may be playing chicken. I think the administration knows that while it'd very much like to see Charles Taylor leave, they can't, in fact, make his departure a condition for the deployment of US forces because Taylor can simply refuse to go, and the US will come under increasing pressure as the humanitarian situation deteriorates. So Taylor, I think, is hoping that we will not call his bluff. But I think, in fact, with the president of Nigeria on his way there to talk to Taylor and encourage him to leave, I think that's what we're all waiting for.

SIMON: Militarily and strategically, what are some of the options that are available to US forces?

RICE: I think the US has three options if we're going to put any further forces in there. The first one would be simply to beef up the protection of our embassy. That would be a minimalist option. The second would be to put in a rather robust headquarters element to provide command and control capabilities for the West African forces it said they'd deploy and perhaps have Marines based offshore. And the more robust option would be to send in up to 2,000 or so US forces, in formed units, with some peace enforcement or fighting capability if necessary.

SIMON: If Charles Taylor doesn't depart, it is conceivable he could be difficult to find?

RICE: That's the biggest concern, I would think, of US policy-makers. The last thing we want is for Taylor to fade into the bush and reconstitute his rebel army. In that case, he'd escape the justice of the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal and be in a position to continue terrorizing Liberians and the rest of the subregion. I hardly think...

SIMON: You'd have a third international outlaw sending audio and videotapes.

RICE: Exactly, and that's hardly—we don't need Saddam and Osama and Charles Taylor simultaneously giving us a hard time.

SIMON: I'm interested, you made references to this: Mr. Taylor was indicted by a UN-sponsored court in Sierra Leone last month. Does this complicate the urgent interest the world seems to have in his departure right now?

RICE: Absolutely. This indictment was entirely deserved and the right thing, but it was incredibly poorly timed. It was timed in a way that, in fact, blew up the ongoing negotiations that could have led to Taylor's departure a couple of weeks ago and perhaps obviated the need for any kind of US or international military intervention. Now with this indictment outstanding, Charles Taylor has two options: either take Bush's tacit suggestion that he go into exile in the next couple days or be faced with the alternative of having to fight to the finish or escaping into the bush, which as I said is the worst possible outcome.

SIMON: Are the principal rebel groups, who are contending to replace the Taylor government, statesmanlike alternatives, as you see it?

RICE: Hardly. No. They are equally unsavory. Many of them are former Taylor fighters and cronies. They also use child soldiers. They're bad news as well. And so part of the concern is coming up with an interim, transitional government that looks better than the status quo. And I think that's going to require the United Nations to play an administrative role for the short term.

SIMON: Dr. Rice, in 30 seconds we have left, alas, a big question. What would you say to Americans who say, 'Why are our sons and daughters about to go in harm's way once again in Liberia?'

RICE: We have serious historical concerns and ties. We have humanitarian concerns. There's a terrible situation in Monrovia. But we also have security concerns in this region, which is an important oil supplier to the United States, and it is becoming a superfailed state, where al-Qaeda has operated and purchased and used diamonds to fund is operations. This is not an area that we want to see continue in turmoil. It would help a great deal for Liberia to be stabilized.

SIMON: Susan Rice, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, thanks very much for being with us.

RICE: Thank you.