It's understandable that President Bush would want to help the suffering people of Liberia. And there's no question the United States can work to end hostilities there. But allowing U.S. troops to act as peacekeepers would be a mistake.
The conditions aren't right, for one thing. It would be different if both sides there had stopped fighting and come up with a political settlement, or if one side had won and asked the international community for help in stabilizing the nation. Our troops might have a legitimate role to play in such a scenario.
But they haven't. And we don't.
There are several reasons we shouldn't commit military ground forces to Liberia:
Americans aren't needed. Other nations are capable of providing the military forces necessary. The effort should be led by neighboring African nations, for whom this is an issue of vital importance. And there are a host of European nations that chose not to help liberate Iraq that could certainly provide adequate support for the operation.
It would drain resources from other security requirements. Since 9/11, the United States has fought two wars and engaged in numerous smaller operations as part of the global war on terrorism. We have 11,500 troops in Afghanistan, 150,000 in Iraq, and still more conducting other missions worldwide. Now is not the time to commit troops to an operation that has little to do with America's national security.
It would cost too much. A peacekeeping commitment would be expensive and drain hundreds of millions of dollars from the defense budget. Past peacekeeping operations such as Somalia cost a total of $1.5 billion. Haiti cost more than $1 billion, and the United States has spent about $20 billion on Balkans peacekeeping.
U.S. troops would become targets. The United States isn't neutral, as peacekeepers must be if they are to be effective. U.S. troops would, rightfully, side with the rebel forces trying to oust President Charles Taylor. In fact, the Bush administration has more than once identified Taylor as the problem and called for Taylor to leave the nation. Even if we were neutral, it would not be perceived as such.
The public won't support such operations. One great fallacy of the 1990s was the notion that Americans won't accept casualties. They will if they feel that a particular military operation clearly supports the national interest. But Americans won't tolerate seeing their young men and women dying in the streets of a far-flung nation for something with no connection to American national security.
U.S. troops don't make good peacekeepers. They are equipped and trained to fight wars, not be international peacekeepers. That's the way it should be. As demonstrated in the three most recent major conflicts -- Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq -- only the United States has the capability to move large forces globally and defeat adversaries in relatively short amounts of time with relatively low casualty rates on both sides.
Why? Because that's how they are equipped and trained. But just because the United States can fight and win wars doesn't mean that it's the best nation at peacekeeping. Indeed, it is one of the worst nations to do peacekeeping.
So should we do nothing? No. The United States does have a role to play in helping Liberia emerge from a state of war. We might help arrange an international peacekeeping effort, assuming the conditions are right for success. We could certainly provide logistics support and communications capabilities. A few high ranking officers could even be committed to run the operation if the international community needs help leading the effort.
But we should avoid sending ground troops to serve as peacekeepers -- not because Liberia doesn't deserve help, but because sending American troops is not the best way to do that.
Historically, unless conditions are optimal, peacekeeping efforts usually fail. Forces move in. Then they move out. And the international community forgets about the issue.
Somalia and Haiti are both examples of peacekeeping failures. The Balkans operations are still ongoing, but they have been far from successful. Indeed, they would descend into chaos if international forces left.
It's time that our government realized that there is no "home by Christmas" when it comes to peacekeeping operations. They are quagmires that cost more then expected, especially when measured in American blood, and usually achieve little in the long run. Overextending ourselves, even in the name of compassion, would be a mistake.
Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire