Clinton conquers Haiti - for now: Even as the President takes his bow, victory could turn into a messy nightmare, argues Peter Pringle

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after the United States invaded Grenada in 1983, I was outside the fallen capital of St Georges with a young infantry captain discussing the US 'victory' when there was a burst of fire from the hills a few hundred yards away. We took cover, and then the captain ordered his men into action. 'OK, let's go clean this one up,' he said. And that's exactly what they did.

By contrast, there is a lot of mopping up still to do after President Clinton's Caribbean victory in Haiti, even though it was executed without a shot being fired. A short-lived victory could still run into a nightmare - such as snipers in the hills or a terrorist underground - just as US voters go the polls in the mid-term elections. The agreement is a huge gamble, a dusting of the landscape that may have no bulletholes but is still riddled with risk.

Even so, the deal that allows General Raoul Cedras and his henchmen to step aside ends a long and dismal period of sabre-rattling in US foreign policy. President Clinton, who was elected on a mandate to concentrate on domestic issues, has threatened the use of American military force many times - in Bosnia for example - and talked tough and often about Cuba and North Korea, but there has been little action. In Bosnia, Mr Clinton said in May 1993 that the time had come for quick and decisive action, but nothing happened. In August this year, the administration talked tough about a possible blockade of Cuba, but had no intention of carrying it out. So-called 'firm' steps to stop North Korea making nuclear weapons turned into quiet diplomatic steps.

It was this message of indecisiveness that was transmitted to General Cedras via his television set, tuned to CNN, and until 61 planes of the invasion force were actually airborne, he undoubtedly never believed it would happen.

Now that he has moved troops into Haiti, Mr Clinton has won cross-party praise for taking the kind of action that leaders must sometimes take - without a formal request to Congress and without the will of the majority of Americans. His decision to send Jimmy Carter to Port-au-Prince, together with Senator Sam Nunn and Colin Powell, was a masterstroke that will be viewed in Congress as evidence of his willingness to make foreign policy a bipartisan affair, as Henry Kissinger keeps on reminding the nation it should be. General Powell is a victorious and decorated soldier who became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and although he was appointed by George Bush and may run as a Republican for president, he wears no political insignia. Mr Nunn, though the leading Southern Democrat in the Senate, has not been a pushover; he, too, is seen as his own man.

The problem for Mr Clinton, however, is that the Carter mission did not clean things up. The agreement is messy.

In an extraordinary hour-long television interview with CNN, Mr Carter - exhausted from his gruelling negotiations in Haiti, and before he had even seen Mr Clinton - revealed several weak spots in the deal. An obviously elated Mr Clinton, a smiling Vice-President Gore and a string of White House officials had given the impression that General Cedras and the Haitian military Chief of Staff, General Philippe Biamby would definitely be leaving the country by October 15 in return for a promise of amnesty from the Haitian parliament. Mr Carter, however, reprimanded them. That impression was too strong, he said.

Close to tears, Mr Carter gave an emotional account of the dramatic last-minute talks in Haiti, asserting firmly that there was no formal commitment by the junta to leave. 'I don't know whether they will leave,' he said. 'They may. Or they may not.'

The fear is that if they don't leave, they will organise a guerrilla movement to try to upset the agreed restoration to the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The third, and by all accounts the richest and most foul member of the junta, the head of police, Michel Francois, was not party to the agreement and has is hiding in the hills. Mr Carter also mentioned, in passing, that several other members of the junta's illegal cabinet quit during the talks. They also are probably already in the hills.

Vice-President Gore and Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in their triumphal moment yesterday, sought to assure Americans that 15,000 well-equipped US troops would be able to do virtually what they wanted in the face of the rag-tag Haitian militia, at best only 7,000-strong. Grim visions from Cyprus, Aden and Northern Ireland come into view.

Without wishing to quibble, what if these brigands do form an armed opposition? What happens if, as in Somalia, US special forces go after them and suffer casualties, or fail? What if American hostages are taken, and Fr Aristide and his followers are demanded in exchange for their release? What if General Cedras and General Biamby refuse to leave and demand a re-negotiation of terms?

By his successful use of the threat of an invasion, Mr Clinton would seem assured of an immediate boost in the polls. Ronald Reagan went up four points after the invasion of Grenada in 1983, and gained another six points after US planes bombed Libya in retaliation for the blowing up of a West Berlin disco.

George Bush climbed nine points in the polls after US troops went into Panama and overthrew the government of Manuel Noriega and made another leap of 19 points when the US and its allies began their attack on Iraq at the start of the Gulf war.

Clinton badly needs a boost in the polls ahead of the November 8 mid-term elections. The Republicans are on the offensive, with calls for 'No More Clintonism' and 'Bring Back Reaganism'. The Republicans are hoping for big gains, predicting they will win at least 22 House seats, bringing them more than 200 out of the 435 total for the first time in 36 years. In the Senate, the Republicans claim they are 'ahead or even' for eight Democratic seats and are 'competitive' in eight more. A seven-seat swing would give them the first majority since 1986.

How the President's Haiti victory will affect the elections is hard to estimate, however. As the late Massachusetts Democrat, Tip O'Neill, said, all politics is local; reliance on national issues, let alone foreign policy, in mid-term election campaigns is successful only rarely. In 1974 the Democrats scored handsomely, stuffing Congress with their 'Watergate Babes', and in 1978 the Republicans did well with a tax-cut proposal, but usually it is local economic factors and local personalities that determine the outcome.

As President Clinton takes a bow for what all sides agree is his 'moment' - an occupation so far without bloodshed - the Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief that their leader has at last scored a decisive political victory. But they cannot be certain that Haiti has gone away as election issue; nor that Clinton has redeemed himself as a chief of state.

(Photograph omitted)