Out of America: Clinton pushed to invade Haiti

AFTER he baulked at confrontation with the Haitian military last year, President Bill Clinton may end up ordering a full-scale invasion of Haiti within the next four weeks. He does not want to invade but, dogged by a reputation for caving-in when faced by resolute opposition, he may have to, because the Haitian army does not take his threats seriously.

The army commander, Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras, trained at Fort Benning in the United States and formerly an instructor in psychological warfare, has reassured his officers over the last six months that the US will not invade, because the administration is split. He suggests he knows this from contacts in the Pentagon, the CIA and the Republican party.

He may have overplayed his hand. The Clinton administration's sabre rattling has been unconvincing. Blood-curdling leaks to the American press identifying the beaches where troops would land have been undercut by timid efforts at a diplomatic solution. As late as last weekend the Vice-President, Al Gore, was hinting that an invasion might not be necessary.

The US would be satisfied if the men who overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 - General Cedras, his chief of staff, General Philippe Biambi and the Port-au-Prince police chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Francois - left the country to allow his restoration. But the record of the last 18 months is that every time the US suggests a compromise General Cedras interprets this as weakness. By rejecting any formula to ease Mr Aristide back into power, the military has faced President Clinton with a choice between humiliation and the use of force. He cannot afford to confirm his reputation for scuttling at the last moment.

In Haiti last year the Clinton administration had its most visible loss of nerve. On 12 October the USS Harlan County, intending to land American and Canadian training troops, turned round in the face of a demonstration by gunmen supporting the army. Even they were amazed. Emmanuel Constant, organiser of the demonstration, said: 'My people kept wanting to run away. But I took the gamble and urged them to stay. Then the Americans pulled out. We were astonished.'

Mr Clinton cannot afford another Harlan County. In the weeks before the November congressional elections he needs a success. He is boxed in by the rhetoric of his own lieutenants. The Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, speaks of turning over Gen Cedras to Mr Aristide's government after an invasion. Contradicting previous Pentagon doubts, the Deputy Defense Secretary, John Deutch, says flatly: 'The multi-national force is going to Haiti.'

Diplomats are beginning to focus on the post-invasion period. A number of questions arise. When will the American invasion force hand over to a United Nations peace-keeping force? The UN does not, as one of its former officials put it, want 'the US to dump the problem in our lap before the security environment is guaranteed'. But Mr Aristide, while he wants to return to Haiti as quickly as possible, does not want to do so under the protection of American bayonets. He would like the UN force to be in place quickly.

Mr Clinton could achieve a foreign policy success in Haiti. Under previous administrations, US military intervention in the Caribbean - unlike Somalia or Lebanon - usually has succeeded. The danger for Mr Clinton is that he may be tempted by a last-minute compromise. This would ignore the lesson of the last year, which is that the military in Haiti does not want to share power with anybody.