IF President Clinton responds to arguments to dispatch troops to restore democracy in Haiti, he will be in good company. Nearly eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson, the century's first Democratic president, sent US Marines to Haiti to impose order on the beleaguered island nation. The 19-year military occupation that followed provides an object lesson for Mr. Clinton, but mainly on the hazards and not the utility of using military force.
``The lesson of American intervention in Haiti is that even if you stay 20 years, you're not going to solve the problem,'' says Walter LaFeber, a diplomatic historian at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. ``All you're going to do is incur the wrath of the Haitians themselves.''
Pressure on Clinton to intervene militarily has been intensified by the consequences of an embargo that was imposed on Haiti nine months ago. It was intended to persuade the country's military-backed regime to return ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the nation's democratically elected leader, to power. Instead, it has merely swelled the flow of refugees now seeking to escape.
Clinton has repeatedly refused to rule out armed intervention - a step backed by many liberal US lawmakers, including most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but opposed by the Pentagon.
Last week, Clinton deployed 2,000 Marines to float off Haiti's coast in a calculated show of force.
On Monday, Haiti's generals announced expulsion of a United Nations-led human rights mission in Haiti. President Clinton the next day said the move validated his continuing consideration of using military force to ``bring an end to this.''
If Clinton finally opts for force, his stated goal will be to end the repression that has contributed to the exodus of Haitians to US shores. For Woodrow Wilson, one goal was to protect US investments in Haiti and tranquillity in the Caribbean deemed crucial to the operation of the newly opened Panama Canal.
The immediate pretext for the 1915 US intervention was supplied when a Haitian mob, enraged by the brutal murder of 160 political prisoners on orders of the country's president, Vibrun Guillaume Sam, captured and dismembered him. US Marines landed in Port-au-Prince in July and quickly turned the country into a virtual US protectorate. They seized control of customs houses in a dozen Haitian ports - the country's main source of income - then forced the Haitian parliament to accept a treaty that gave the US command of the island nation's finances, armed forces, public works, and foreign affairs.
Back home, the treaty was ratified by the US Senate without a single dissenting vote. In Haiti, dissent was silenced as Marine units pressed a sometimes brutal war of extermination that led to the death of 2,000 Haitian resistance fighters.
An occupation that started with a bang ended with a wimper. Shortly after taking office in 1929, President Herbert Hoover disclaimed any desire to remain in Haiti. Five years later, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the last US Marines were withdrawn, with little to show for the long and costly occupation. Barely two decades after the US intervention to make Haiti safe for democracy, the country fell under the rule of one of the region's most notorious tyrants, Francois (``Papa Doc'') Duvalier.
If Clinton decides to send US forces to Haiti, he will have one thing in common with President Wilson: a missionary impulse to advance the cause of democracy.
``The only comparable causal factor would be the hope expressed by Woodrow Wilson that the US could replace brutality with some kind of democratic regime in Haiti,'' says Professor LaFeber. Little else would be the same. Eight decades later the US is no longer primarily motivated by the desire to protect financial or strategic interests. Indeed, the lessening of the latter since the end of the cold war is one reason why conservative hawks who supported recent US interventions in Grenada and Panama now oppose the idea of sending troops into Haiti.
Public is wary
Any modern US intervention, moreover, would be undertaken in a far less permissive domestic and international environment. According to a recent Newsweek poll, two-thirds of Americans are opposed to a US invasion, and only half back the idea of US participation in a post-invasion multilateral peacekeeping force. Hemispheric leaders are also cool to any US military intervention, which means that if Clinton decides to intervene, he will be under pressure to get in and out of Haiti as quickly as possible. The go-it-alone approach embodied in the Monroe Doctrine may no longer be relevant to US foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.
Despite the differences between 1915 and 1994, one question remains the same. It is the same question posed to President John Kennedy by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba in 1961: What do you do if you win?
After deposing Haiti's military government, the US would have to make hard choices about other preconditions to withdrawal. In the aftermath, the longer US policymakers debated the matter, the more likely it would be that US soldiers would get caught in the crossfire of competing factions in Haiti and thus retard, rather than nourish, the essential conditions for democracy.
In the end, the biggest risk is that the use of force to end the generals' rule could also undermine the legitimacy of the democratic forces, observers note.