THE only substantial United States national interest in Haiti is to keep the Haitians there instead of here.
Once upon a time, the US had a strategic interest. Haiti and Cuba are on either side of the Windward Passage, one of the principal routes between the Atlantic and the Caribbean and a gateway to the Panama Canal. It was this interest that prompted the US to acquire the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba in 1903 and to send Marines to Haiti during World War I. That interest today is very much reduced, if not totally obsolete. In any event, it is not threatened in the current situation.
Nor is there a significant economic interest; trade and investment are minimal.
There is a political interest. Haiti is nearby. Many Americans are uncomfortable with reports of military and police brutality there. What we do in Haiti affects our position elsewhere in Latin America. It would be nice if Haiti were democratic, but we ought not to talk about restoring democracy. You can't restore something that never existed.
When you come right down to it, Haiti has nothing we want. It has one thing we do not want - people. This makes it a peculiarly embarrassing problem of foreign policy. The US (population, 258 million; per capita gross national product, $23,150) has been in a fever of indecision for months over a country with a population of 6.9 million and a per capita GNP of $370. Worse, the US is largely white and Haiti is almost all black. Rich white folks are trying to keep out poor black folks.
There is more, and greater, irony. One of the functions of the armed services is to defend US shores. This becomes ludicrous if we, in effect, invade Haiti to keep it from invading us, especially when the Haitians cannot even build boats seaworthy enough to get them from there to here. It is more ludicrous when one reflects that the US is itself a country of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. It has not been very long since the US was making a major issue of the Soviet Union's refusal to allow emigration of Jews; now it is the US trying to prevent emigration of Haitians.
Notwithstanding these embarrassments, it is understandable that Americans should be concerned about control of their borders. Immigrants are overwhelming absorptive capacity in Florida (where most Haitians would probably go) and other states (Texas, California, New York) with key elections this year.
Maybe restoring deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power would be an indirect way of stemming the flow of Haitian refugees by curbing violence, but it would probably not be enough. US immigration policy tries to draw an almost impossible line between economic and political motives. If you have a well-founded fear of political persecution, you can get in. But if you have a well-founded fear of starvation, that's too bad: Go back home and wait for a relief package. Historically, probably more US immigrants were motivated by economic than by political pressures.
So if we are serious about protecting ourselves from Haitian immigrants, getting Mr. Aristide in and the military out is only the first step. The second would be to provide hope for Haitians who stayed home. Haiti doesn't have to become more attractive than Florida, but it has to become better than it is now. And that will cost a great deal of money.
Foreign policy is a series of trade-offs. The basic trade-off in this case is between a program to handle more refugees in the US (and live with the political side effects) and a program of development in Haiti. To put it more crudely, do we put them on welfare after they get here, or do we spend on foreign aid to keep them them there? The first option is more painful politically; the second is more expensive economically.
Both have wider ramifications. Next door to Haiti on the same island is the Dominican Republic, which could present the same choices. Across the narrow Windward Passage is Cuba, which will some day be free of Fidel Castro Ruz. We cannot make Haiti policy in a vacuum.
There is an old adage about how much easier it is to get into a bear trap than to get out of one. President Clinton is being criticized, with some reason, for indecisiveness on Haiti. But that is another word for temporizing. The British used to call it muddling through. It's not pretty, but it's a way to stay out of bear traps. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.