Clinton's Showdown Diplomacy Has Limits

BY facing down Haiti's ruling junta, President Clinton may have boosted his standing on the world stage and quieted his foreign policy critics in Washington - at least for now.

North Koreans, Bosnian Serbs, and other troublemakers for the United States have at least one example where Mr. Clinton's diplomacy set a tough deadline and stuck to it.

The many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who plastered Clinton's Haiti policy as inept will likely slow their torrent of critical press releases.

But Clinton and his officials should savor their pearl of success, because in geopolitics success is often fleeting. Thousands of US troops entered a tense situation in Haiti yesterday, with a possibility for misunderstanding and casualties high. With weeks to go before the junta's scheduled Oct. 15 departure date, there is still a risk the agreement could disintegrate.

In his speech to the nation Sunday night, Clinton recognized as much, saying the operation ``still has its risks'' and that the US is sending soldiers into what is essentially harm's way.

It was hard, however, for the administration to completely conceal its delight. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a man who is nothing if not sober, said, ``This is power in the service of diplomacy in one of the most convincing ways that I can recall.''

It was also brinkmanship. The invasion was prevented by the thinnest of margins - some 61 warplanes were already in the air and heading for Haitian targets when the deal was struck. If ex-President Carter had been less determined, or if Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Phillipe Biamby had not somehow heard of the approaching armada and decided to fold, combat would have begun only hours after the departure of US negotiators.

The fitful nature of Clinton's Haiti policy in past months may well have been a factor in the Haitian junta's stubbornness.

Last year, a US warship loaded with troops intended to implement a previous, more-limited agreement retreated in the face of a mob on a Port-au-Prince dock. General Cedras may have really believed that the US fleet assembled off Haiti's shores would similarly retreat in the face of defiance. If so, he miscalculated badly.

Though no US president orders troops into combat lightly, Haiti would have been an easy military target - and the Clinton administration needed to prove it can stand up somewhere. Now it faces tests in North Korea and Bosnia that are, in their own way, more important and difficult than the Haiti crisis. The administration's opponents in these tests may now calculate US resolve differently.

In North Korea, for example, Pyongyang's negotiating style is so prickly it can make Cedras look wishy-washy. Persuading the North Koreans to abandon their clandestine nuclear weapons program is one of the top US security priorities, however, and US officials believe they have made progress in that regard through a careful process of coaxing and prodding.

The latest glitch involves a North Korean desire to obtain replacement nuclear reactor technology from somewhere other than Russia, as the administration favors. If the US was seen as being unable to oust a handful of belligerent Latin American generals, it may have had an even harder time impressing on Pyongyang officials the seriousness of this and other US positions.

In Europe, US allies may now believe it more likely that Clinton will follow through on his promise to begin lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims Oct. 15 if Bosnian Serbs continue to shun a peace agreement. The US new-found sheen of credibility could help facilitate negotiations between Israel and Syria, and further dealings with that perennial US irritant, Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz.

Or the whole thing could fall apart in a few weeks. Somalia looms in the background as a reminder, a place where a spate of US casualties and a concerted reaction in Congress quickly exploded US policy and eroded the Clinton foreign-policy team's image.

After all, Haiti's leaders have already reneged on one agreement to leave their posts - the so-called Governors Island pact signed in July 1993.

The accord brought back by Mr. Carter and his fellow negotiators, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and retired Gen. Colin Powell, allows Cedras and his fellows some four weeks until they have to give up power.

That is plenty of time for obstinate generals to think up ways of attempting to avoid their fate.

US troops in Haiti will be operating in a demanding environment. Constrained by the fact that they are nominally working in concert with the Haitian military, they are likely to still face opposition and perhaps even sporadic gunfire. In some ways it would have been easier for the military to operate in a ''non-permissive environment'' - armed forces talk for a war zone.

At least then the mission and rules of engagement would have been clear.

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