Clinton prepares for shame or glory: Failure in Haiti would spell political disaster for the White House . . . success would reap huge rewards

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON travelled by limousine to the Pentagon; Jimmy Carter arrived by US government 707 on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince. In the same hour yesterday, the Haitian drama was being played out according to opposing scripts: the super power edging towards merciless action and the veteran diplomat intervening at the last moment to see if he can prevent it happening.

With nerves raw in Washington and Haiti, there was only one certainty. In hours, the leaders of the three-year-old military junta in Haiti - General Raoul Cedras, Police Chief Michel Francois and the menacing-looking Army Chief of Staff, Philippe Biamby - would be relieved of office. The last chance for a peaceful transition lay with the unexpected, eleventh-hour mission of former president Carter and his two partners, retired army General Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn.

When Mr Carter first offered to intervene a week ago, the White House was unenthusiastic. But as the political headwind against an invasion grew almost to hurricane strength last week, the appeal of trying once more for a diplomatic solution grew. If Mr Carter succeeds, Mr Clinton will have lessened the risk of political calamity.

If the mission fails, the imperative of dislodging the junta will remain. It is as much an exercise in punishing human rights abuses and protecting democracy as it is of saving presidential face. The threats against Haiti have stood so long, the risk of the administration looking ridiculous have long been too great to ignore.

As 20 US Navy ships and 20,000 troops gathered in Haitian waters last week, the chorus demanding restraint grew ever louder. Those voices included almost every Republican in town and many from Mr Clinton's own party. In Congress, where opposition to an invasion is gauged at about two to one, members complained that they were being given no say in the affair.

There was also the deafening ambivalence of the public. Opposition to military action did at least appear to soften after the President's Thursday night address, with one poll showing a respectable 56 per cent in favour of sending troops. But the political risks clearly remained overwhelming. While the impulse to rally round the flag would ensure still stronger public support at the moment of invasion, that could quickly collapse if the operation were to falter and if more than a very few US body bags were to arrive back home.

The Haiti fuse was lit by the President himself, even before his inauguration. In early January 1993, the president-elect abandoned a campaign promise to reverse the Bush policy of automatically repatriating Haitians fleeing by sea towards Florida. To deflect criticism, he made the promise that now he finds himself bound to deliver: to guarantee the return to Haiti of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest who was deposed by force in December 1991 just eight months after his victory in a popular election.

In the early months of the administration, the omens for a diplomatic settlement seemed good. In July, tempted by the promise of a suspension of economic sanctions, General Cedras came to the US where, with Fr Aristide, he signed the UN-sponsored Governor's Island accord. Under it, Fr Aristide was to be reinstated as Haiti's president on 15 October 1993 with the military leaders formally stepping aside. But it was not to be. In hindsight, it became obvious early on that implementation of the accord was in trouble, particularly as human rights abuses flared through the end of that summer. However, Mr Clinton's worst error may have come shortly ahead of the scheduled power transition, when a contingent of 200 American and Canadian troops, on a non- combat mission, arrived off Haitian shores aboard the USS Harlan County.

The ship's appearance triggered a small but threatening riot on the quay in Port-au- Prince. In the midst of a national trauma over troop losses in Somalia, the White House blinked and ordered the County to turn tail. That, above all, probably emboldened the junta to believe that, whatever his threats, Mr Clinton would never follow them through.

'One of the flaws in the administration was to permit the Cedras clique to institutionalise itself,' says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, who supports intervention now. 'They saw the military as part of the solution instead of the whole problem.'

It was only a fresh wave of boat people last spring that pushed Haiti up the President's agenda. Pressure put on him by the Congressional black caucus was especially crucial. Haiti was as important to them as South Africa had been, members told him, and Fr Aristide as important as Mandela. The countdown to action began in July, with passage of a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of 'all necessary means' to return democracy to the country.

With mid-term elections in America barely eight weeks away and the Democrats already threatened by a Republican rout, the risks of invasion are daunting. If it goes badly, the President and his party will be punished. But there is also the potential for political reward, either if the Carter mission proves successful and military engagement is averted or if the invasion, if happen it must, goes cleanly.

With the Haitian junta dislodged, the human haemorrhage from Cuba staunched and confrontation over North Korea averted, Mr Clinton's foreign policy talents could be viewed in a much more favourable light.

(Photograph omitted)