Haitian Defiance Leaves Clinton Limited Choices

Waiting out the conflict and invading are both unpopular measures

THE situation in Haiti has become a foreign policy train wreck for the Clinton administration.

With the Haitian military more obstinate by the day about handing power back to democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Clinton officials appear to have two basic options - both unpleasant.

The choice of waiting out Haiti's military leader, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, and his allies risks launching a new wave of Haitian boat people toward United States shores. Yet the track of more forceful intervention is unlikely to be supported by the Pentagon or the United States public.

Meanwhile, members of Congress who are dissatisfied with Clinton's foreign policies in general have picked Haiti as a focus for their discontent. Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas said Sunday that he would propose a legislative provision to require congressional authorization for any troop deployment to the Caribbean nation.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said Clinton needs to call a ``time out'' on Haiti before getting drawn further into a morass.

For Clinton officials, a major problem is that it is hard to envision a permanent end to Haiti's political turmoil.

Many US analysts now say that General Cedras and his hard-line allies never intended to turn power back to the deposed Mr. Aristide, as called for in an agreement reached July 3 at Governor's Island, N.Y. Haiti's politics appear as polarized as ever, with a small and brutal elite fearing the return of a populist president they consider unstable.

The problem is that Haiti's political culture is rooted in a history of all-or-nothing struggle for power, says Douglas Payne, director of hemispheric studies at Freedom House in New York. The country has little experience with true democracy and a legacy of authoritarian rule left by longtime dictators Francois ``Papa Doc'' and Jean-Claude ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier.

``Halfway measures do not work in this kind of society,'' says Mr. Payne.

The United Nations economic embargo on Haiti set to take effect last night has brought real pressure to bear on Cedras and his allies. Strictures on oil, in particular, have greatly damaged the economy and turned much of the economic elite against the military and the police.

But in the end even this has turned out to be a halfway attempt that has not yet forced results. And a small contingent of lightly armed US troops is unlikely to have any effect on the island, says Payne. ``To intervene, either unilaterally or multilaterally, can only be done forcefully or not at all,'' he says.

At press time, the chances of a forceful US intervention seemed quite low. The US military has shown little enthusiasm for sending forces to Haiti. Secretary of State Warren Christopher admitted publicly in a newspaper interview over the weekend that the Pentagon and the State Department have at times been at odds over the deployment of Haitian peacekeepers.

High US officials have been careful to not rule out the use of force to put Aristide back in office. But there seems almost no chance that a rerun of the US invasion of Grenada will be launched with Haiti as its target.

``That wouldn't make much sense,'' says a knowledgeable US military officer.

Given the long history of US intervention in Haiti, Aristide himself is unlikely to want to ride back to office on the backs of the Marines. But further delay in his return, combined with the reimposition of economic sanctions, will only push more and more impoverished Haitians to try and flee to US shores.

Decades of mismanagement have already devastated the island's environment. In the best of times Haitian agriculture is now capable of supporting only one-third to one-half of the present population. Sanctions will only worsen this poverty.

This is where the Haitian situation differs greatly from other current US foreign policy crises, say analysts. Whereas Bosnia and Somalia only indirectly affect the US, they say, Haiti is an area of direct American interests.

The pressure of Haitian refugees has already caused Clinton to back off a campaign promise to allow Haitian refugees immigration hearings. Instead, the Bush administration practice of intercepting boat people at sea continues.

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