Public Support for US Action In Haiti Appears Malleable

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AFTER months of floundering, the Clinton administration seems to be finally finding an approach to the Haiti crisis that has the potential for creating a consensus in the American public.

The approach that was not working, and has still not been fully jettisoned, is the Panama option - unilateral intervention. Besides the lack of support from Congress, allies, Latin American countries, and even exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, numerous public opinion polls show that barely a quarter of the United States public supports such a course.

The new approach is to seek United Nations sponsorship for intervention in Haiti, should the sanctions fail. A new poll of 1,339 Americans by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland indicates that 54 percent would support a UN-sponsored multilateral intervention to restore Mr. Aristide.

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Public opinion seems fairly malleable. When asked if they would back the policy if the president and Congress make a clear decision either to support or not support a UN-sponsored intervention, 1 in 5 respondents said they would. This suggests that with a bipartisan consensus, public support could reach 70 percent.

Furthermore, it seems there is little real resistance to such intervention. Of the 22 percent who said they would oppose it even if the president and Congress support it, 1 in 4 said they would support the policy if it seemed likely to succeed.

So why does support for intervention in Haiti leap upward when it is part of a UN-sponsored operation? Partly because Americans these days would rather be part of a multilateral operation than go it alone. A December 1992 Gallup poll found that an astounding 87 percent agreed that ``the US should commit its troops only as part of a United Nations operation.'' While most polls found only 1 in 4 support a unilateral intervention in Haiti, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 45 percent would support a military intervention when it would be in conjunction with allies. In the PIPA poll the collective legitimacy of UN sponsorship further raised the support to 54 percent.

There may be another dimension:

Americans feel comfortable using unilateral force when vital national interests are at stake. But when it is a question of addressing problems that are more global or humanitarian in character, they prefer to have it carried out under a UN aegis.

It seems the majority of Americans don't see the Haiti crisis as threatening vital national interests. The Washington Post/ABC News poll found thatonly 38 percent feel vital national interests are at stake in Haiti. Likewise in the PIPA poll, when respondents were asked to think in terms of US national interests, support for intervention dropped 5 percent.

This suggests recent White House efforts to argue that vital national interests are at stake in Haiti may be wasted. Besides the fact that most people do not buy the argument, they do not think that it decides whether the US should be involved. In the PIPA poll, 75 percent agreed that ``whenever it can, the US should look beyond its self-interest and do what's best for the world as a whole''; 84 percent said that ``sometimes the US should be willing to make sacrifices if this will help the world as a whole.'' When respondents were asked to think in these whole-world terms, support for UN intervention in Haiti jumped 5 percent.

But if public support for an intervention is not motivated by perceived threats to national interest, can policymakers be confident that when faced with US troop casualties the public will not demand to beat a hasty retreat? An intervention in Haiti would likely require US troops to be posted there for some time, with the possibility that they may be attacked by hostile elements.

In the PIPA poll respondents were asked to imagine a scenario in which 25 to 100 American troops were killed while participating in a UN operation in Haiti. Some were even asked to imagine that they saw images of the bodies on television. Still, less than a quarter of respondents said that they would opt for the US to withdraw in such a case. The largest number opted for reinforcing US troops, while others favored striking back at the attackers or simply staying the course.

Even after the US fatalities in Somalia last October, the public was not as quick to run as it seemed. In five different polls taken at the time, the average support for immediate withdrawal was 41 percent. A PIPA poll conducted at the time also found that much of the sentiment for withdrawal was not primarily a reaction to the fatalities per se, but to a perception that the majority of the Somalis wanted the US to leave. If the majority of the Somalis wanted the US to stay, 54 percent of Americans polled said they would want our troops to stay.

Obviously, public support for a UN-sponsored intervention in Haiti is not the only factor in making such a policy viable. Other members of the Security Council and other Latin American countries who would presumably contribute troops would also need to be brought on board.

For these audiences, as well as the American public, the US would have to distance itself from the model of the unilateral intervention in Panama. An alternative model, and an important precedent, is the intervention to protect the Kurds after the Gulf war. The April 5, 1991, Security Council Resolution 688 identified the repression of the Kurdish population with its resultant refugee flows as a threat ``to international peace and security'' and therefore a proper cause for UN action. The military intervention enjoyed support in the world community as well as popular support in the US. Such support continues today despite the extended length of time that US troops have been there. Even the recent friendly-fire fatalities did not stir up a debate on why US troops are still there.

Americans seem to be growing more comfortable with the principle of UN intervention in domestic affairs. The PIPA poll found that 78 percent of respondents agreed that atrocities of sufficient magnitude may ``justify UN intervention.'' But the days when Americans felt the US had the unilateral prerogative to use its ``big stick,'' even in its own ``backyard,'' seem to have passed.

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