Haiti Showdown: Clinton shares responsibility for flip-flop policy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - With the impending occupation of Haiti, either by invasion or following the negotiated departure of the three Haitian military leaders, President Bill Clinton is grappling with the greatest crisis of his presidency, writes Patrick Cockburn. He must not fail, as a debacle will confirm doubts in Congress and among voters about his leadership.

There is no question that his Haitian policy is unpopular. More than 60 per cent of voters have consistently opposed it. Mr Clinton's approval rating in the last CNN/Time magazine poll has dropped to 37 per cent, with 49 per cent disapproving and 14 per cent still unable to make up their minds. Hostility to invading Haiti is so great in Congress that Mr Clinton had to act this weekend or face an imminent vote against an invasion.

By dispatching a three-member team, led by the former president Jimmy Carter, with General Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn, Mr Clinton is trying to spread the responsibility. Any agreement with the Haitian military will have their imprimatur on it.

Mr Carter and Gen Powell are popular figures. This will make it difficult for Mr Clinton's critics to attack any decision reached in Port-au-Prince. But their presence underlines the weakness of Mr Clinton's foreign policy team. Just before the Gulf war, George Bush sent his secretary of state, James Baker, to deliver an ultimatum to the Iraqis.

Mr Clinton, by contrast, had to bring in outside help to give his policy credibility. Nobody suggested sending the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, or the National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake. The Haitian crisis, and the use of an ad hoc team, may bring closer long contemplated changes at the State Department and National Security Council.

Senior State Department officials believe the replacement of Mr Christopher by the former vice president and current ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale, is likely. Mr Lake would be replaced by the Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbot.

The sending of the Carter team to Port-au-Prince may have been essential to Mr Clinton because of the lack of support for the invasion. But it is also damaging. It reinforces his reputation as a man who always gives ground in the face of resistance. On Wednesday he told reporters: 'There is nothing to talk about.' In an address to the nation the following day he said that the time for negotiations was past.

But by Friday he had assembled a negotiating team, although they were given a mandate only to discuss the 'modalities' of the departure of the Haitian army commander, General Raoul Cedras, the chief of staff, Philippe Biamby and the Port-au-Prince police chief, Michel Francois. Once in Haiti, the talks were prolonged and American officials said their departure was only one aspect of the discussions.

Mr Clinton may have defused opposition by turning to such a high-powered delegation. But repeated changes of position make it difficult for voters to know where he stands.