Back Up Clinton on Haiti - Whether or Not He Deserves It

The White House has made mistake after mistake; but withholding support now would only make things worse

A COMMENTATOR who urges support for a likely presidential decision to invade Haiti must at least stipulate at the outset that things would not have come to this pass had the Clinton administration shown even modest competence in its handling of the issue. Instead, it has made nearly every mistake that a team lacking both experience and intuition in the conduct of foreign affairs can:

Mistake No. 1: Reinventing the wheel. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed by the Haitian military in 1991, over a year before Bill Clinton became president. The Bush administration quite sensibly concluded that the sole United States interest in the matter was preventing a deluge of refugees.

President Clinton, however, quickly succumbed to what might be called ``the newcomer syndrome,'' the notion that his predecessor lacked both the moral insight and diplomatic skill to ``get it right.'' He determined that the restoration of both President Aristide and Haitian democracy were achievable goals and became saddled with both policies.

Mistake No. 2: Insisting on Aristide's return. Yes, Aristide was democratically elected. So was Hitler. Aristide was also a practitioner of ``liberation theology'' who referred to the US as ``satan,'' who described capitalism as a ``mortal sin,'' and whose readiness to resort to mob rule flavored his brief tenure in office. While he makes a wonderful expatriot, there is no US interest in having him in the seat of power.

Mistake No. 3: Buckling in a crisis. Having secured in the Governors Island Accord the junta's consent to Aristide's return plus some modest US military assistance, Clinton ordered the warship Harlan County to turn back when a handful of military thugs demonstrated on the docks of Port-au-Prince against the arriving US forces. Had the ship dropped anchor and been joined by a half-dozen others while an emissary from the White House went ashore to ``confer'' with the junta, the Haitian military would likely have buckled and today's crisis would never have occurred.

Mistake No. 4: Ignoring intelligence. US intelligence informed Clinton in advance that the imposition of economic sanctions would enrich the Haitian military, devastate those it was trying to help, and generate additional refugees while putting little pressure on the military to step down. For what appear to be mainly domestic political reasons, Clinton ignored this advice at the outset and continues to ignore it today despite ample evidence of his policy's tragic bankruptcy.

He also ignored early intelligence suggesting that a political solution to the dispute could have been found had the US backed away from insisting that Aristide return to power. Today he is failing to accept intelligence indicating that it will take years of expensive and laborious ``nation building'' to eliminate the potential for another military coup the day after US forces are withdrawn from Haiti.

Mistake No. 5: A lack of national leadership. Each morning, the US awakes to ask, Who will be making the administration's Haiti policy du jour? Will it be Transafrica's Randall Robinson? The congressional black caucus? Aristide? Panamanian President Guillermo Endara Galimany? United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali? Each day, the answer is different.

Mistake No. 6: Painting oneself into a corner. Having stated so often that the Haitian military must step down and Aristide must return, the administration must now bring those results about or both it and the US will suffer a stinging loss of credibility. Thus, with no national consensus and with his own administration deeply divided, Clinton has gone to the UN seeking its final pre-invasion nod.

Still, Clinton now needs support from the likes of Robert Dole, Newt Gingrich, Brent Scowcroft, and others whose public opposition to invasion probably emboldens the Haitian military, thereby making invasion all the more likely.

Yes, the country would not be in this predicament but for White House incompetence.

And yes, it is unfortunate that American soldiers may have to die as a result.

But sadly, putting soldiers at risk to erase presidential blunders is as American as apple pie. American soldiers died in Panama, for example, because George Bush neglected to pick up Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega at his comandancia when coup leaders had him in their hands three months earlier.

What, beyond US credibility in its own back yard, was at stake in a Panama invasion that was far more costly in both US and Panamanian lives than Haiti will ever be?

More than national chauvinism rides on the back of that credibility. In a part of the world where democracy is perpetually under siege, where putative dictators lurk at every military base and police outpost, and where human rights atrocities are no stranger, a US whose word is credible can be a force for considerable good.

At this point, the greatest possible harm to the national interest would be the collapse of the US position on Haiti. That being the case, Clinton should get the support he needs, rather than the support he deserves.

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