Why U.S. Troops Should Not Be Sent to Liberia

Report Africa

Why U.S. Troops Should Not Be Sent to Liberia

July 3, 2003 9 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.
Crisis Worsening: Now is Not the Time to Deploy U.S. Troops -- Updated July 22, 2003

The crisis in Liberia is getting worse. According to recent press reports nearly a hundred people have died in renewed fighting. Even the American embassy has been shelled. This is exactly why now is not the time to deploy U.S. troops to that nation.

This may be the time to conduct a non-combatant emergency evacuation of American citizens and the U.S. Embassy, but it is not the time to intervene in a brutal civil war. Military intervention will do little to help achieve a long-term resolution to their problems. That is unless foreign troops invaded Liberia, not as peacekeepers, but as war fighters.

For an external military force to resolve Liberia's problem, it would need to take sides. The objective would need to be to either

  1. Repel and defeat the rebels or to
  2. Help the rebels overthrow the Charles Taylor government.

However, given that the United States has no compelling national security interests in Liberia, this is not an option. The two major factors in reaching this conclusion are:

  1. Solutions to civil wars must come from within. Externally imposed resolutions are neither legitimate nor sustainable.
  2. American forces are already heavily deployed around the world in missions defending vital U.S. national interests.

The U.S. Role
First, the President was correct to send the 40-Marine fast team into Liberia to defend the U.S. embassy and other American assets. These are not peacekeepers, but military personnel sent on a mission to protect American interests. Secondly, deploying 4,500 personnel off the shore of Liberia is also an appropriate response. These sailors and Marines may be needed to facilitate an evacuation and may enable some future international peace keeping mission. However, this is nearly as far any U.S. military response should go at this time.

On the political side, however, the Bush Administration must put additional pressure on the fighting factions to come up with a political settlement and compel the Charles Taylor government to step down. With the Taylor government gone, the Liberians may request aid from the international community, including the deployment of peacekeepers. At that point the international community should come together to aid the Liberians to ensure success.

The United States must not turn its back on Liberia. That nation, along with much of the rest of the African continent, is critical to America's future. America does have a special historical relationship with Liberia, but not only Liberia. America has historical and cultural ties with much of that continent. That is why it is so important to help Liberia achieve long-term stability by helping them resolve their own problems.

President Bush should not commit any United States troops to an international peacekeeping force in Liberia.

At some point in the future an international peacekeeping force could help stabilize Liberia. However, refusing United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's efforts to have up to 2,000 U.S. troops present as peacekeepers -- because there is scant evidence that peace is imminent -- acknowledges the reality that any international force would be war fighters.


The Administration should hinge its support on either of the following steps taking place:

  1. Both sides stop the violence and come up with a political settlement,
  2. One side wins and asks for the help of the international community to stabilize the nation.

Yet, if these conditions are met the U.S. should still resist efforts to send troops. Assistance in helping Liberia emerge from its current situation and become a successful African nation could focus more on:

  1. Providing logistics support and communications capabilities, and
  2. Committing a few high ranking officers to run the operation if the international community needs help leading the effort.

Eight Reasons Not to Send Troops

The United States should not commit military ground forces to the effort now or in the future. There are eight reasons why:

  1. Political violence in Liberia does not constitute a threat to the vital interests of United States.
  2. Americans are not needed.
  3. A Liberian peacekeeping operation will drain valuable resources away from vital national security requirements.
  4. Considerable financial cost.
  5. Americans peacekeepers will be targets of political violence.
  6. The American public will not support such operations.
  7. The U.S. armed forces do not make good peacekeepers.
  8. The international elite makes it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to participate in any of these kinds of missions.

Political violence in Liberia does not constitute a threat to the vital interests of United States. The civil war in Liberia is not our business. While the United States does have historical ties to Liberia and should play an active role in helping it solve its problems, diverting scarce national security resources away from vital missions to Liberia is not legitimate.


Americans are not needed. If peacekeepers are needed to monitor a fragile Liberian peace, which does not exist at present, they should not be Americans. Other nations are fully capable of providing the military forces necessary. The effort should be led by 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.


A Liberian peacekeeping operation will drain valuable resources away from vital national security requirements. The U.S. cannot afford to commit an ever-larger proportion of its stretched forces to worldwide peacekeeping operations. This was true before the war on terrorism, but is critical now. Maintaining U.S. troops in the Balkans and critical peacetime operations, such as maintaining alliance commitments and anti-drug operations, before September 11 kept the United States military at an exceedingly high operations tempo. Since September 11, the United States has been engaged in two major wars and countless other smaller operations as part of the global war on terrorism. Already it has 11,500 troops in Afghanistan, 150,000 in Iraq, and countless others conducting smaller operations around the world. Now is not the time to commit troops to an operation that has little to do with America's national security.


Considerable financial cost. An American Liberian peacekeeping commitment also would entail considerable financial costs and could drain away hundreds of millions of dollars from the defense budget. Past peacekeeping operations such as Somalia cost a total of $1.5 billion, Haiti cost over $1 billion, and the United States has spent about $20 billion on Balkans peacekeeping.


Americans peacekeepers will be targets of political violence. The United States is not neutral, as peacekeepers must be if they are to be effective. U.S. troops would - rightfully - be on the side of the rebel forces trying to oust 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 the U.S. were neutral, it would not be perceived as such, and this creates huge problems-the greatest of which is violence against U.S. forces. Organized forces that feel they are not being treated fairly by the United States would identify America as unwanted occupiers against whom violence would be justified.


There is also a high risk of less organized violence from terrorist or small factions trying to gain notoriety. Americans are high value targets for these bands of vagrants. They can use American casualties to gain popularity, increase membership, generate interest, or demonstrate their capabilities.


The American public will not support such operations. One of the great fallacies of the 1990's was that American's would not take casualties. The American public absolutely will accept causalities when it feels that a military operation is clearly in support of the national interest, such as with Operation Iraqi Freedom, which still enjoys solid public support.


But Americans will not tolerate seeing its young men and women dying in the streets of far-flung nations fighting for something that has nothing to do with American national security. While there may be some initial support for these operations, that support will dwindle as Americans begin to die.


The U.S. armed forces do not make good peacekeepers. America's armed forces are equipped and trained to fight wars, not be international peacekeepers. And that is 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. They are able to conduct such operations because that is how they are equipped and trained. However, just because the United States can fight and win wars does not mean that it is the best nation at peacekeeping. Indeed, it is one of the worst nations to do peacekeeping.


Applying war-fighting skills to international peacekeeping leads to low morale, misapplication of force, and frustration.


The international elite makes it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to participate in any of these kinds of missions. It will be virtually impossible for the United States to participate in international peacekeeping coalitions in the future because any action it takes will be used by the anti-American international left to make accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the operation is in direct support of the nation's security, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the risk of trumped-up legal accusations are overtaken by the risk of not addressing the threat. However, when the operation does not support the vital national interest, the inevitable legal charges are just one more reason why the United States should not commit ground troops.

This is precisely why, from the liberal internationalist perspective, it is so important for nations to give U.S. forces exemptions from International Criminal Court prosecutions. Regardless of the facts, the anti-American international elitists will view any U.S. participation as imperialist. Of course, they will initially demand that the U.S. commit troops, but as soon as the United States takes an action that they deem inappropriate, America will be branded war criminal.

Why 2,000 Troops is Really 6,000 Troops
A peacekeeping force consists of more then just the number of troops actually involved in the operation. If 2,000 troops are deployed - as Kofi Annan requested - the United States would really be committing is 6,000 troops, because for every soldier committed, there is one preparing to deploy and one recovering.

In addition to that, the U.S. maintains 8,000 troops in the Balkans, which means that 24,000 are dedicated to that mission. So with an additional peacekeeping mission in Liberia, the United States would have at least 30,000 troops committed to missions that have little or nothing to do with U.S. national security.

In addition to diverting troops from other, more important missions, an open-ended peacekeeping mission in Liberia will reduce the military effectiveness of troops available for other missions. Troops returning from Liberia will need many months of retraining to regain the war fighting skills that atrophied during their peacekeeping deployment.

For example, troops returning from Somalia took 10 months to regain their war fighting skills. And many of the specialties that will be needed for a Liberia operation are the same high demand, low-density assets, such as special operations units, reconnaissance assets, and military police units that the U.S. needs to fight the war on terrorism.

Quagmires That Achieve Little
The United States does have a role to play in helping Liberia to emerge from its current situation and become a successful African nation. That role may even be in the form of facilitating an international peacekeeping effort, assuming that the conditions are right for success. The United States could 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.

The United States must avoid sending ground troops to Liberia, not because the U.S. should not help Liberia, but because sending American troops is not the best way to help.

Historically, unless conditions were optimal, peacekeeping efforts usually have failed. Forces move in, then they move out, and the international community forgets about 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 the international forces were to leave. It is time that the American government recognize 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 very little in the long run.

--Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom