IT seems more and more likely that President Clinton will send American forces to depose the usurpers of power in Haiti. If -- and this is a big if -- a military push is accompanied by wise diplomacy, it stands a good chance of helping Haitians move back toward democracy and stability.
Ever since Vietnam and the more recent fiascoes in Lebanon and Somalia, the American military has insisted on the need for commanders to have an ''exit strategy'' before they consider starting any foreign intervention. That should be much more than a military requirement! Defining a clear, realistic set of political goals should be the starting point of any decision to intervene. Staying focused on these goals, rather than on military technicalities, will define the effectiveness of any intervention.
Why restate these fairly self-evident warnings? Partly because Mr. Clinton's ability to lead the nation's armed forces during any sustained military action remains untested.
One of the first pitfalls might be tension between the military's insistence on using overwhelming force in any encounter with hostile elements, and the social-political requirements of sustaining an effective intervention in Haiti. Suppose an American-led intervention force succeeds in destroying Haiti's ragtag 7,400-person armed forces within days after a landing -- then what? Would the same huge force continue driving regular large patrols around Haiti's impoverished towns and its steep mountains to que ll any remaining opposition? That is one aspect of what happened during the last American deployment in Haiti, when the Marines stayed on for 19 years, building resentment especially among the poorer Haitians.
Probably a rapid downsizing of the military presence would be called for, along with a switch of American emphasis toward building up the country's battered police and administrative infrastructure. The Joint Chiefs of Staff might not be happy about this. Would Clinton and his civilian advisers be able to continue calling the shots? I am not accusing the nation's military leaders of disloyalty as such. But they have hundreds of ways of making their case to a president, especially if their forces have suffe red losses. Does the president have diplomatic advisers of equal or greater vision and persuasiveness?
An intervention to restore Haiti's legitimate president would bring many challenges to our president's leadership, at home as well as overseas. But it remains the right thing to do. Here is a neighboring country whose democratically-elected president long ago requested American help in restoring him to power. For far too long, those pleas fell on unhearing ears. Clinton himself contributed to the downward spiral of events in Haiti last October, when he ordered an American ship carrying United Nations polic e monitors and military to be turned back before it docked in Port-au-Prince.
Since then, the level of repression in Haiti has ratcheted up several ugly new notches. Democrats, human rights monitors, church people, and others have been hounded down, tortured, raped, killed, and mutilated.
Using American force to help restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and to provide an environment in which genuine political and administrative reform can take root in Haiti, will require a prolonged commitment of American energies and resources. But I believe that it can be done successfully -- and that righting the anti-democratic wrong of the past in this way is a step that can modestly enhance Clinton's standing.
But long before he signs any final order to move the troops, the president needs to be quite sure that he and his civilian advisers have defined the political goals clearly and realistically -- and that these, through everything, will be the goals that prevail.