IT'S good that President Clinton has at last decided to allow refugees fleeing the terror in Haiti at least one fair hearing before United States immigration officers decide whether or not to return them to Haiti. But that still deals with only a tiny part of the problems in American-Haitian relations.
The big question is what the administration will decide to do if the military goons who hijacked that country three years ago don't meet the next United Nations-imposed deadline in mid-May for the return of the lawfully elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Mr. Clinton should commit his administration wholeheartedly to the speedy reinstatement of President Aristide. And yes, by force if necessary. The shilly-shallying and the constant appeasement of the renegade generals that marked Clinton's first 15 months in office have achieved nothing. They resulted in a far, far worse situation for democrats and human rights activists inside Haiti. And they have contributed strongly to the image of Clinton as a weak and bumbling ditherer in world affairs.
In his election campaign, Clinton quite correctly promised that his administration would give more support to President Aristide and would end the heartless (and illegal) policy of forcibly repatriating Haitian refugees intercepted at sea. Once in power, he forgot those promises. He kept the repatriation policy, maintaining President Bush's active appeasement of the generals in Port-au-Prince.
Then last October, when the generals thumbed their noses at American power by sending a ragtag mob of 200 protesters to ``threaten'' the US Navy vessel taking Canadian and American police trainers to Haiti, Clinton ordered the boat turned back.
If the president had hung tough that day, there was a good chance that the will of the international organizations that were sending the trainers could have prevailed. The crisis might have been resolved without much further bloodshed.
As it was, the moment the boat turned around, the pogroms against democrats, human rights monitors, and Aristide supporters inside Haiti intensified. But Clinton's diplomats continued inexplicably to demand political concessions from Aristide!
It took the president until mid-April to admit that this policy had failed. In an extraordinary admission of presidential ineptitude, he expressed support for the hunger strike of pro-Aristide protester Randall Robinson and said that his own policy on Haiti ``hasn't worked.''
Some kind of a policy review was then belatedly put in motion. But there still remains strong resistance in some branches of the Washington bureaucracy to any idea of confronting the Haitian generals with force. That resistance comes from some in the CIA, like chief Latin America analyst Brian Latell, who in October made unsubstantiated charges about Aristide's mental health in a special briefing to senators.
But Clinton is the commander in chief. If he, on the basis of the best political-military advice he can get, determines that a US-led expedition to reinstate President Aristide is in our national interest, then naysayers in the bureaucracy will have to go along. Or they should be asked to resign. It is not yet clear that Clinton understands this.
An expedition to help reinstate Aristide should be planned in close coordination with allies in the Organization of American States and with the UN.
Many key allies of the United States are understandably leery of getting tangled up in an international coalition of which the Clinton administration has thus far proved - in Somalia, in Bosnia, and in Haiti - to be an unpredictable and unstable ingredient. But most of them would only welcome any sign of decisive leadership from Washington.
A well-planned campaign by US and allied forces could take over the country in a matter of hours. And there are still just enough of Aristide's supporters left alive there to establish a working, democratic administration.
In view of the suffering that our hard-pressed neighbors in Haiti will endure as long as the generals remain in power, Aristide's speedy reinstatement is a goal whose worth a capable and committed president could easily explain to the American people.
He has not done it yet. But please: Let it be soon.