A LEADING REBEL group's declaration of a cease-fire yesterday seemingly offers one last chance for Liberia. This truce, after days of fierce shelling, is a godsend that should be used to prevent that West African country from further self-destruction.
Two things must now follow in short order to make the announced cease-fire stick:
An international peacekeeping force -- mostly from neighboring West African countries but under the auspices of the United Nations and the United States -- must be quickly landed in Liberia to supervise the truce.
President Charles Taylor, an indicted war criminal, must be persuaded swiftly to leave for Nigeria, which has offered him asylum. His exit would transfer power to the vice president, creating conditions for a peace treaty, transitional government and new elections.
No delay can be tolerated in achieving these two objectives. Otherwise, the halt in fighting declared by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy is sure to crumble.
The previous, monthlong truce is a cautionary example of good intentions gone awry. It fell apart last week, a victim to indecision in Washington and the inability of the Economic Community of West African States to get its peacekeeping mission off the ground under U.N. sponsorship.
Before his trip to Africa this month, President Bush prudently tried to win reassurances that any possible U.S. involvement in Liberia would not turn into a Somalia-like ambush. But after raising initial expectations in Africa, he then began vacillating about a U.S. role, not certain whether to believe the Pentagon, which opposes sending troops, or the State Department, which argues for a limited military deployment.
That hesitation emboldened President Taylor to disregard pressure for stepping aside. As that happened, the rebels, who had gained control of most of Liberia, discarded the cease-fire, launching an all-out assault on Monrovia.
The new truce is an opportunity that requires prompt action from President Bush. With 4,500 sailors and Marines poised to steam toward West Africa, he ought to authorize a token U.S. task force to lead the West African peacekeepers to Liberia, whose population has been pleading for U.S. intervention.
The U.S. role should be a narrow one; the protracted peacekeeping mission ought to be the responsibility of Africans.
Americans cannot be expected to police the world. But Liberia, which was established by private and official Americans in the 1820s as a refuge for free blacks and repatriated slaves, is a special case. It is the one African nation for which the United States bears a clear moral responsibility.