THE Clinton administration has set a better course with its latest policy shift toward Haiti. The United States warships headed toward that island nation have the ostensible task of being ready to evacuate American citizens if necessary. Their underlying job is to tighten the squeeze on that country's outlaw military regime.
The presence of the amphibious force does not mean invasion is at hand, as the Clinton administration has reiterated. It does mean that military action is a possibility and, more important, that the economic and political sanctions already in place are not about to ease up. The generals and their privileged supporters should take notice.
Haiti's boat people will also take notice of Washington's latest moves. President Clinton made a needed change of direction last month when he junked the morally deficient policy of immediate repatriation. Shipboard and refugee camp screening of people picked up at sea was resumed, and the numbers of Haitians formally granted refugee status, and thus entitled to asylum, significantly increased. Predictably, the trickle of boat people soon grew to a torrent.
That phenomenon built political pressures in Washington to do more on two fronts: dealing with the fleeing Haitians and hastening the restoration of Haiti's democratically elected government.
Under the new policy, the refugee problem is addressed by recruiting other nations to provide safe havens for those picked up at sea who can show they are fleeing repression. Panama is the first country to offer its services, and others are expected to follow. Critics say that room for 10,000 here and 10,000 there still won't accommodate all the exiting Haitians. They also say that all the boat people are fleeing intolerable circumstances and no one should be forced to return.
It is likely, however, that the flow of refugees will fall off once people realize that those rescued at sea have no access to the US proper. Only Haitians applying for asylum at refugee-screening offices in Haiti retain that possibility. This is clearly intended to placate anti-immigration sentiment in the US.
As for the argument that all fleeing Haitians should be given refuge, the facts of deprivation and repression on the island are indisputable. Who wouldn't try to leave?
Like most policies, this one springs from pragmatism and political balance. The new directive does, however, take up the moral challenge of giving safe haven to all Haitians with a credible fear of persecution, and it emphasizes the fundamental goal of restoring legitimate government to Haiti through tough sanctions. It's not perfect, but it's a positive step.