A decade of unprecedented American involvement in Liberia began in 1980, when a coup led by Sgt. Samuel Doe seemed to offer the promise of a broadened political base in what had been for too long seen as a republican oligarchy. Pursuing this hope, perhaps with more haste than wisdom, the United States poured more aid into Liberia during the following decade than all previous United States aid to Liberia combined.

It did not work. Corruption was rampant, ordinary people were no better off, and elections were either rigged or their results denied. If anything, American aid dollars helped prop up a corrupt, dictatorial regime that was rejected at the polls by the Liberian people in 1985.

Given American frustration at this track record, one can perhaps understand the current passive U.S. stance of standing back and watching the various armed factions in the Liberian civil war slug it out among themselves.

Wearied and disgusted by the decade of Doe's misgovernment, some Liberians appear prepared to confer prematurely upon Charles Taylor, the rebel leader, the benefit of a coup. He alone, they contend, had the guts to take on Doe; therefore he deserves to have Liberia delivered to him as a reward of sorts. Accordingly, considerable ingenuity and pains are being displayed to draw up statements and declarations that purport to commit a victorious Taylor to prepare promptly for free and fair elections and to usher in democracy to a unified Liberia.

Dangerous contradictions are contained in these moves by which law-abiding and patriotic Liberian civilians are endorsing violence as an acceptable means of bringing about political change. But if the recent history of Liberia teaches us anything, it is that democracy will not come from the barrel of a gun. That was tried in 1980, and it ultimately led to the current civil war and potential ethnic massacres that threaten Liberia today.

Although Doe still clings to power, the patriotic front has given him a shaking from which he cannot recover. Doe should therefore be pressured to exit and be replaced by a new government that would be constitutionally bound to hold free and fair elections next year. Taylor's forces and other armed factions should be able to convert any gratitude earned from the Liberian people to peaceful support at the ballot box. But to confer such dividends prematurely, or in any fashion and by means other than democratic election, would very likely lay the basis for a new dictatorship.

This is where the United States can help. It should use its influence to preserve the Liberian constitution by pressuring Doe to resign and be succeeded by the current vice president or by any suitable neutral Liberian, as happened with Gerald Ford in the United States in 1974. Immediately upon the seating of the new president to complete Doe's unexpired term, the United States and other powers friendly to Liberia, at the new president's request, should help Liberia to end the fighting promptly and resettle the nearly 20 percent of the population displaced by civil war. Thereafter, preparations for an internationally monitored and observed election would become the top priority for the new government.

At a time when American exertion and ideals have done much to foster and sustain the democratic upsurge in Eastern Europe, Liberia looks to the United States to play a modest but critically important role in preventing bloodshed and restoring democracy in an African land born out of American dreams.

The writer, a former Liberian U.N. ambassador and justice minister, led a multiparty delegation to Washington last May to explore with the U.S. government ways for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.