LIBERIA continues to be lacerated by a fratricidal war that is descending to new depths of barbarity and pointlessness without the help of foreign invaders. Prompted by threats from one of the rebel leaders, Prince Johnson, to round up Americans and other foreigners in order to provoke international intervention in the eight-month-old civil war, President Bush moved last Sunday with decisiveness, and U.S. Marines stationed on a carrier off the Liberian coast acted with precision to evacuate 62 Americans and 12 foreign civilians from dangerous Monrovia -- one day before Mr. Johnson planned to strike. Mr. Johnson has apparently made good on his threat, seizing an American and several other foreigners in Monrovia. The Marine rescue mission also came on the heels of last week's gunning down and bayoneting of hundreds of refugees huddled in a church in suburban Monrovia, an act allegedly carried out by Liberian government troops.

While it is far from certain how all this will be sorted out, one thing is clear: the galvanizing force for much of the bloodshed is holed up in a fortified mansion in Monrovia; he is Liberia's president and commander in chief, Dr. Samuel Kenyon Doe, aka Master Sgt. Doe. Because America's ties to Liberia are historical and special, because its past financial assistance has been substantial and because this country bears some responsibility for Sgt. Doe's still being there, American interest -- and obligation -- do not end with the airlift.

It is worth remembering that Sgt. Doe led a small band of enlisted men who shot their way into power in Liberia in 1980 in a coup that resulted in the assassination and disemboweling of civilian president William R. Tolbert and the firing-squad execution of 13 top government officials before a taunting and cheering audience. Since 1980, Sgt. Doe has never governed far from the gun. And despite more than $500 million in U.S. economic and military aid -- the latter of which continued to flow to him through last spring despite complaints of corruption and human rights violations -- the man has never acquired a taste for democracy, only power and hard currency. And the disagreeable fact is that the U.S. government has, in a variety of ways over the years since he seized power, played along with Sgt. Doe and continued to support him outrage after outrage.

Now that has changed, but American concern should not stop at the walls of the American Embassy compound. The Bush administration accurately points out that all three forces -- Sgt. Doe's, Mr. Taylor's and Mr. Johnson's -- have committed atrocities and it is therefore right to rule out direct intervention in the fighting. The United States can, however, get off the sidelines and actively seek to participate with a regional force such as the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which is trying to fashion some solutions to this crisis. U.S. hands-on encouragement of the formation of a multilateral African peace-keeping force to enforce a cease-fire, along with the use of U.S. influence to encourage Sgt. Doe to leave office now, is an important first step. Now we are more than half way there with the decision by key West African states to dispatch a joint ECOWAS military force "for the purpose of keeping the peace, restoring law and order and ensuring that the cease-fire is respected." The next step is to establish an interim government that, with U.S. support, can help pave the way to internationally supervised elections.