WASHINGTON — TO the Clinton administration, the Caribbean is fast becoming what Central America was to President Ronald Reagan: a small region of the Western Hemisphere that slurps up inordinate amounts of United States money, time, and attention.
The crises in Cuba and Haiti will continue to distract President Clinton from his domestic agenda as he returns this week from his Martha's Vineyard vacation. Top officials will be trying to salvage what they can of health-care reform while simultaneously weighing the ouster of Haiti's military leaders and the result of talks with a stubborn Fidel Castro Ruz.
The White House will also try to convince both Haitian and Cuban leaders that the US is not going to be distracted and waver in its goals for the region. The Haitian junta in particular had appeared to hope that it might buy time because of the influx of Cuban rafters toward US waters.
But absent an extraordinary about-face, administration officials are making it clear that a US invasion of Haiti is now only weeks away. Haiti's military leaders are ``going to leave one way or another,'' said Vice President Al Gore Jr. in a broadcast interview Sept. 4. ``The world community has long since made that clear.''
The timing of a Haiti invasion may hinge on the training schedule for 266 soldiers from four Caribbean nations - Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and Belize - who will be participating in the operation. They would give an invasion at least a semblance of multinational participation.
US officials say these troops will need one to two weeks of training in US communications, weapons, rules of engagement, and methods of civilian control. Their responsibility will be police-like - not combatant, as they are unlikely to arrive at the head of the first wave.
The bulk of the invasion force, under current plans, will be made up by 10,000 or so US troops. Its beginning will likely involve Marines rolling up somewhere on Haiti's beaches. If planners believe airstrips can be quickly seized, then a standard light infantry force will be quickly flown in. If the airstrips do not appear to be soft targets, then the 82nd Airborne may be required as well.
`The force will be overwhelming,'' said Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch last week at a briefing for reporters.
Few experts judge the invasion a difficult military task. The Haitian military has no real tanks and few heavy weapons of any sort. Lightly armed, Haitian soldiers are ideally suited for intimidating a civilian population.
``They're pretty pathetic,'' judges Terry McCoy, head of the center for Latin American studies at the University of Florida.
But as Mr. McCoy points out, the task of building a civilian political culture in a nation that has never really experienced democracy is going to be extremely difficult. This aspect of the invasion promises to be open-ended, and it is the reason critics of Clinton's Haitian policy, including many leading Republicans, have flatly declared that the US has no business seizing Haiti by force.
Problems with Cuba also seem to be blossoming into something that will not end quickly. Migration talks over the weekend did not produce a quick accord in which President Castro would curb the rafter exodus in exchange for increased legal emigration of Cubans to the US.
As of this writing such a deal might still be signed soon, as negotiations in New York were continuing. But the Castro regime so far had seized upon the talks simply as a forum to complain about the continuing US economic embargo of Cuba.
Cuba is in fact likely to be an increasingly troublesome neighbor to the US for some time, according to a report just released by the RAND Corporation. While Castro stays in power, real reform is unlikely, judges the study, and the island will drift toward further repression and perhaps an explosion of violence that could result in strong political pressure for US military intervention.
The top US planning priority for Cuba should be figuring ways to prevent an uncontrolled crisis from spiraling into direct confrontation, says RAND's Edward Gonzalez, co-author of the report. The US military may need to take steps to protect its Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, as well as installations in southern Florida, from direct attack. It must be ready to stop Cuban Americans who might pour toward Cuba to save loved ones or fight if the island erupts in civil war.