Clinton draws line in the sand on Haiti

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton is inching towards armed intervention to oust the military regime in Haiti, but his tougher line is already creating a backlash among Republicans in Congress and senior officials at the Pentagon.

'It is time for them to go,' he said of the junta, using a famous slogan of his successful 1992 presidential campaign.

Attacking the killings carried out by the Haitian government, Mr Clinton said: 'We can't afford to discount the prospect of a military option.' No final decision has been reached but he may be forced to follow through on his latest sabre-rattling on Haiti - if only to show that he really is prepared to use military means to back up his threats.

If the United States is to intervene militarily anywhere, it is easier to do so in the Caribbean than in Bosnia or Somalia. In the 1980s, President Reagan successfully invaded Grenada. And President Bush ousted General Manuel Noriega in Panama. With the latest poll showing a majority of Americans disapproving of his foreign policy performance Mr Clinton badly needs a success.

At a press conference with foreign journalists from around the world, broadcast by CNN from Atlanta late on Tuesday, Mr Clinton vigorously defended himself. Admitting that he had underestimated the difficulty of 'ploughing new ground' in the post-Cold War world, he said the US cannot be a 'bully going around using our power in a destructive way'.

The problem for the administration is that Mr Clinton's habit of talking tough and then retreating at the first sign of resistance is now so notorious that it is undermining his credibility from Port-au-Prince to Pyongyang.

To rebut the perception that he and his administration are irresolute, Mr Clinton is considering using Haiti as a test case. 'We are going to do our best to bring this to a conclusion before more people continue to die and suffer,' the President said. Although he left himself room to manoeuvre by saying no final decision has been reached, he cannot really afford to be faced down, as he was last year, by General Raoul Cedras, the Haitian army commander, and Colonel Michel Francois, the chief of police.

Republicans immediately counter-attacked. The former president, George Bush, said the exiled Haitian President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide - whom Mr Clinton wants to restore - is 'unstable'. Even the Democratic Senate leader, George Mitchell, said military action in Haiti would be 'neither wise nor prudent'.

But Mr Clinton is under increasing pressure to act. Returning boatloads of Haitians to the mercies of their government while welcoming Cubans is regarded as racist by blacks. In Washington yesterday, Randall Robinson, the man largely responsible for the US embargo on South Africa, was admitted to hospital on the 23rd day of his hunger strike protesting against the administration's Haiti policy.

It is not all Mr Clinton's fault. Polls by Times Mirror and Gallup last year showed America's lack of enthusiasm for foreign engagements, except in special circumstances. A majority support US action if Iraq invades Saudi Arabia but 63 per cent said the US should not defend South Korea against attack from North Korea. With the end of the Cold War the US does not feel inspired to action by an external threat. In 1980, 84 per cent of those surveyed said the Soviet Union was a threat; today only 8 per cent feel the same about Russia.

Americans are more willing to send military forces abroad if they are going on a humanitarian mission. This is supported by 56 per cent of the public. Some 63 per cent are also prepared to act against dictators who attack US allies. To relieve the siege of Sarajevo in February, 48 per cent approved US air strikes but 57 per cent opposed using ground troops even if the air strikes failed.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of Mr Clinton's policy has been to try to win public support for intervention by trying to combine humanitarian and military goals. In Bosnia, this leaves penny packets of UN troops protecting food convoys wholly vulnerable to Serbian attack at the same time as Mr Clinton is threatening air strikes against Serbian artillery. In Somalia, Mr Clinton fatally assented to expanding the UN mission to end the famine to one of determining who held power in Mogadishu.

To stay in the White House in 1996 Mr Clinton needs to show he can formulate and implement a coherent foreign policy. A second failure in Haiti - after the tough talk in Atlanta - would be all the more damaging because the military junta is weaker than his opponents in Bosnia or Somalia. If they cling to power Mr Clinton may find he is prisoner of his own militant rhetoric and has no choice but to invade.