Haiti: Clinton skates on thin public support for intervention: Relief on all sides and plaudits for Carter as bloodshed is averted, but Aristide's supporters fear worst is yet to come

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The Independent Online
'YOU have 30 more minutes and then I will have to order you to leave,' President Clinton says he told former president Jimmy Carter during the last moments of the negotiations in Port-au-Prince. But there are doubts in Washington about whether nerves cracked first in the White House or the Haitian military headquarters.

At a press conference yesterday Mr Clinton congratulated the delegation led by Mr Carter for getting the agreement of General Raoul Cedras to leave power, if not Haiti, and restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidential palace on 15 October.

For the moment Mr Clinton can claim that he has emerged with success from the most serious crisis of his presidency. He has avoided a contested invasion which was deeply unpopular in Congress and the country. He has associated two of the most trusted men in the US - Mr Carter and General Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - with his policy, making it difficult for the Republicans to criticise him.

Even so Mr Clinton knows that support for the agreement is only skin deep. 'This mission will be limited in time and scope,' he promised yesterday. 'It is clearly designed to provide a secure environment after the restoration of democracy.' He said the situation 'remains difficult . . . uncertain'.

But, as well as the relief, there are serious doubts about how far Mr Carter's negotiating team actually brought back an agreement which really meets Mr Clinton's objectives, spelled out as recently as Thursday night in an address to the nation. He said then that General Cedras, his chief of staff, General Philippe Biamby, and the Port-au-Prince police chief, Michel Francois, would have to go. Yet at his press conference yesterday Mr Clinton said they might well stay on in Haiti.

Critics of the agreement say that it is fatally flawed by leaving the Haitian armed forces unreformed. The last agreement with General Cedras, signed at Governor's Island in New York in July last year, was similar in many ways to that negotiated by Mr Carter. That agreement collapsed because army-controlled death squads targeted Aristide supporters.

The difference under the present agreement will be the presence of 15,000 American troops, but their relationship to the outgoing and incoming governments is uncertain. 'Any real attempt to fundamentally change the system may be glossed over,' warns Bill O'Neill, a human rights lawyer with long experience of Haiti.

For the majority of Americans the uncontested occupation of Haiti is a success undiluted by doubts about the future or concessions to the military made along the way. 'The image we are all afraid we would see sometime this week has been avoided,' said General Powell yesterday. 'That image was American youngsters killing Haitian youngsters and Haitian youngsters killing American youngsters.'

Mr Carter, who a few months ago when he first sought to arbitrate over North Korea's nuclear programme, was bad-mouthed by the White House as a dangerous maverick, has once again turned into Mr Clinton's saviour. But there are also political costs for Mr Clinton. Much of the credit for the agreement will go to Mr Carter, not the President. Second, the fact the White House had to employ a non-governmental negotiating team to carry weight in Port-au- Prince reflects badly on the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake. The outcome of the crisis is likely to fuel further speculation about the replacement of both men.

Some senior officials are reported to be upset that on Thursday night, after telling the American people that the time had passed for negotiations, Mr Clinton authorised Mr Carter to start his peace mission.

This may reinforce the President's reputation for being unable to make up his mind. But his last- minute bid for a negotiated agreement was also the result of his political isolation. More than 60 per cent of Americans disapproved of an invasion and he faced hostile resolutions in both Houses of Congress.

There is no doubt that the administration has shifted its stance on the Haitian government. Last Thursday Mr Clinton denounced them as killers, torturers and rapists. By yesterday Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke of them as an endangered species saying: 'Democracies don't work unless minorities are protected. There is a fear of the minority that they will lose their lives.'

Success in Haiti may well give Mr Clinton an important lift before the Congressional elections in November. Conventional political wisdom in the US is that military success brings - as with President Bush in the Gulf war - a sharp but temporary surge in support for the White House. By gaining some, at least, of his objectives by ordering the planes carrying paratroopers to take off from Fort Bragg on Sunday night, Mr Clinton can claim that in a crisis he can and will take a decision. He also may be able to turn the tables on the Republicans, who have long criticised him for his failure to back the Vietnam war, by attacking them for failing to support him in Haiti.

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