Bush pledges US support to Liberia

February 21, 2008 1:31:52 PM PST
President Bush offered encouragement and help Thursday to lift this shattered country from years of ruinous fighting as he concluded a tour of Africa and turned toward other global problems. In Liberia, the final stop on Bush's five-country trip, almost nothing works and people are nervous about their future in the aftermath of a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003.

The country is overrun with weapons, malnutrition is pervasive, half of children are not in school, and many buildings are uninhabitable. There is little running water or electricity and no sewage or landline phone system.

"It's easier to tear a country down than it is to rebuild a country," Bush said. "And the people of this good country must understand the United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country."

Though Bush's entourage was a bit jittery about his seven-hour stopover, Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, declared at one point, "You're safe."

Bush used his five-country trek to showcase how billions in aid and diplomatic engagement are improving the everyday lives of people across the continent.

Though each nation he visited already receives huge amounts of assistance, Bush had new announcements for Africa ready to drop at each stop:

-Ghana, $350 million to battle tropical diseases across the developing world.

-Rwanda, $100 million to train and equip African peacekeepers going to Sudan.

-Tanzania, a $700 million development compact and help providing an anti-malaria bed net for every child between 1 and 5 in that country.

-Benin, $6 million for textbooks, teacher training and scholarships. Liberia: 1 million textbooks and 10,000 desks by the start of the next school year.

Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, offered an opportunity to trumpet a success in Bush's "freedom agenda," which faces an uncertain future in Iraq and many other nations.

"We're working to heal the wounds of war, and strengthen democracy, and build a new armed forces that will be a source of security for the Liberian people instead of a source of terror," the president said.

Liberia's civil strife brought unspeakable violence. Hundreds of thousands were massacred, boys were conscripted as soldiers to commit horrifying atrocities against countrymen, and the diamond trade was hijacked to finance fighting. At the center of the problem was one-time rebel warlord and dictator Charles Taylor.

As the crisis escalated in 2003, the United States imposed sanctions. Liberia's deterioration dominated Bush's trip to Africa that year, and on his return to Washington, the president offered logistical support for peacekeepers - mostly offshore and arriving after Taylor fled into exile in Niger.

The U.S. has since helped a transition government hold elections, supported Sirleaf's new government, and funneled millions in aid, including funding for the modernization of Liberia's security forces "from the ground up," as White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe put it.

Sirleaf responded by calling the United States Liberia's "No. 1 partner." She seemed proud that so many thousands of her flag-waving citizens lined this capital city's pockmarked, intensely poor streets for Bush's visit.

"It is befitting that we acknowledge with thanks the key role that the United States has played and continues to play in helping to end our civil crisis," said Sirleaf. The U.S.-educated economist once supported Taylor against a former military dictator, but she now earns accolades as the first female head of state in Africa who is presiding over peace and a growing economy.

The two leaders watched large lines of forces that the U.S. helped train smartly marching on a coastal facility's sun-baked, red-clay parade grounds. Speaking there, Sirleaf pleaded with Bush not to sharply reduce funding for peacekeeping "until our forces are ready."

Bush said Liberia, though struggling, is making progress. "It's possible because of the iron will of the lady you lovingly refer to as 'Ma,"' Bush said. "That would be you, Madame President. I appreciate the fact you've ushered in an age of reform, and you've opened up a new chapter in the relationship between our countries."

Bush was flying from Liberia to Washington, where the goodwill of his Africa tour was likely to be a fast-fading memory.

Three foreign policy developments during his journey will demand his close attention. Fidel Castro resigned from his 49-year rule of Cuba, U.S.-supported Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf saw his party lose parliamentary elections, and Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and triggered new U.S. tensions with Russia.

Bush also faces contentious negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Congress on a new wiretapping bill to replace one that expired on Saturday and an outcry from Democrats over his promised veto of a bill barring the CIA from using waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods on terror suspects.

On Air Force One, Bush said his African journey was "one of the most exciting trips of my presidency."

Talking with reporters on the way home, he said the 2008 presidential campaign never came up in his meetings with African leaders.

On another subject, Bush stood by his demand for legal protection for phone companies that help the government eavesdrop on suspected terrorists, saying he sees no prospect of a compromise with congressional Democrats on the subject.