FORMER President Carter deservedly gets most praise for negotiating the departure of Haiti's military rulers. But credit also goes to President Clinton, who took the political risk in allowing the Carter mission to proceed. No one could have been very happy about a United States invasion of Haiti.
With the end of the cold war and the spread of democracy in the hemisphere, there were reasons to hope that the US would not have to turn to gunboats in its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. True, the intervention in Haiti carried the authorization of the United Nations. The US would be playing by international rules, not making its own. Still, the US had been able to secure only tepid support from other nations.
Initially, the hope was that the Organization of American States (OAS) could resolve the crisis diplomatically. Only three months before the Haitian military deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the US and other OAS members had approved a historic resolution to act collectively to reverse violations of democratic rule. A success in Haiti would have set an important precedent for future regional initiatives to safeguard democracy and bolster the OAS's standing. But it did not work out.
There is cause to lament many missed opportunities for resolving the Haiti crisis - in part, resulting from the inconsistent, maladroit policies of two US administrations. President Bush declared his commitment to return Mr. Aristide to power but did little to make that happen.
The Clinton administration engaged the Haiti situation more intensely and, in July 1991, succeeded in getting Aristide and Haiti's army commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to agree to sign an agreement allowing for Aristide's return to office. That agreement, very similar to the one hammered out by Mr. Carter, almost succeeded. It fell through when the ship transporting a contingent of lightly armed US troops, the only potential mechanism for monitoring and enforcement, was pulled back at the last moment because a small mob had gathered on the docks. It took another six months for the Clinton administration to decide to force the junta out. The administration failed to join its new hard-line approach to a serious negotiating strategy - until the Carter mission.
If General Cedras had not accepted this last-ditch offer, the options would have been closed. A US invasion would have been inevitable and justified to remove Haiti's de facto military leaders and allow for Aristide's return.
Now policymakers should focus on how to work with Aristide to establish law, order, and democracy in Haiti, and to reconstruct the country's devastated economy. They may be dangerously underestimating the difficulty of doing all this. Mr. Clinton stated Sept. 15 that ``Our mission in Haiti ... will be limited and specific.'' He assigned the task of assisting the rebuilding of Haiti to the international community. Earlier, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott had said the US would not be involved in nation building.
Haiti just may hit a winning streak. The Haitian army and police may quietly disband; the country's terror squads may be controlled; and a new police force may be quickly trained and put on the streets. Aristide may easily develop good, cooperative working relations with the US and UN commanders. Aristide may also, as he did not do in the past, reach out to his political adversaries and seek to rule through compromise and conciliation - and his adversaries may respond in kind. Efforts to reconstruct Haiti's battered economy and revive its devastated public services might gain ample funding from international sources and proceed successfully.
Realistically, the chances of this kind of smooth transition to normalcy in Haiti are low - although the horrific scenarios of mass violence and revenge that some have predicted are also improbable. What we can certainly expect is substantial political conflict, disorder, inefficiencies, inadequacies in financial resources and human skills, persistent institutional failings, and probably some cruelty and corruption.
Progress will be slow, at times almost invisible, and there will be setbacks. The timetable put forth by Clinton - suggesting that the bulk of US troops will be out in a few months and that all US and UN forces will be home by early 1996 - appears far too optimistic. A responsible effort to give Haiti a fighting chance to recover will require the US to make a deeper, more expensive commitment than is now contemplated. 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.