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America's orphan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE BUSH administration ought to direct some of its considerable power and influence toward bringing an end to years of agony in Liberia. Americans, after all, created that West African nation more than 180 years ago.

Maryland's connection to Liberia is particularly strong. During the 1830s, Annapolis legislators allocated hefty sums of taxpayers' money to encourage free blacks and slaves to move to the mosquito-infested swamps of coastal Africa. Even today, the main thoroughfares in the hot and humid capital of Liberia's Maryland County are Baltimore Street and Maryland Avenue.

For more than 150 years, Americo-Liberians, descendants of these early black colonizers, ruled Liberia. A 1980 military coup supplanted them, unleashing violence against the erstwhile settlers, their wealth and institutions. Looters ransacked the mansions of the elite, and squatters took over their Masonic lodges.

Ten years later, the tables were turned again, when Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian who had escaped from a Massachusetts prison, staged another coup. That triggered ethnic rivalries that soon escalated into a brutal civil war.

Last week, an accord was reached to cease hostilities. But after Mr. Taylor, who was elected president in 1997, refused to step aside, rebels launched a fierce attack on the capital.

Even if he is deposed, U.S. leadership is needed to help bring Mr. Taylor to justice. He is under a United Nations indictment for war crimes, including smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone, Liberia's troubled next-door neighbor. But a trial should be just the first step. After years of wanton killing, rape and various forms of slavery, Liberia also desperately needs a systematic plan to reintroduce the rule of law.

Even today, Liberia is full of symbols that commemorate its historic links to the United States. Monrovia, the capital, was named after U.S. President James Monroe. Another major city honors President James Buchanan. And Harper, the capital of Maryland County, is a tribute to Robert Goodloe Harper, a congressman and Baltimore lawyer who invented the name Liberia.

These are powerful historical connections. They underscore the moral obligation that the United States ought to feel and demonstrate toward Liberia. There is no need to return to the condescending paternalism of the 1950s when U.S. diplomats and the Firestone tire company called the shots. But the United States ought to exercise its considerable clout to give Liberia the chance for a brighter future.

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