Leading Article: Clinton may be right

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HERE IS a curious thing. Some 20,000 US troops are on the point of invading a neighbouring country to restore to power a Marxist priest who has denounced 'the deadly economic infection called capitalism'. Their commander-in-chief is a president who opposed the Vietnam War. They are being cheered on by precisely the people who normally deplore the Americans throwing their weight around in their Latin backyard. Opposed to the invasion are the majority of Americans (and mid-term Congressional elections are less than two months away) as well as the leading actors in Desert Storm, George Bush and Norman Schwarzkopf. What is going on?

It is easy to be cynical. Here is a failing President, with the centrepiece of his domestic programme - the health care reform bill - in deep trouble. Haiti's present rulers may be thugs but this is a weak country, unlikely to put up serious opposition; an invasion would most likely show that there is at least one thing Mr Clinton can do successfully. It is easy, too, to mock. Mr Clinton has acquired a reputation for inconsistency and indecision in foreign policy. Over Bosnia, North Korea and Haiti itself, the toughest talk is followed by the most tender action. Jimmy Carter's mission to Port au Prince this weekend, only days after the President had told the nation that the time for diplomacy was over, looks like another example. It seems wholly characteristic of the presidency that nobody was quite sure yesterday whether the Carter mission was an exercise in US neck-wringing or hand- wringing. Had the junta agreed to depart in advance of the invasion (as Mr Clinton always hoped) and asked for Mr Carter's visit as a face-saving device? Or was it a sign of failure of White House nerve? It is hard to resist the conclusion that the President has been playing a game of bluff and double-bluff not just with the Haitian junta and US public opinion but with himself, too.

Yet both the mockery and the cynicism may be unfair. If the President seems muddled - and if the Haiti crisis looks topsy- turvy - this is because the end of the Cold War changed the rules of international affairs, and nobody knows what the new ones are. Under the old rules, no American administration would have lifted a rifle to help a Jean-Bertrand Aristide, even if he had won an election. A regime's potential for anti-American or pro-Soviet mischief mattered more than its democratic legitimacy. Mr Clinton is the first president to arrive in the White House without the benefit of such clear and simple guidelines.

What might the new rules be? The simplest and crudest one is not new at all: act in protection of vital national interests. It was George Bush's great luck that the first post-Cold War challenge - Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and its oilfields - met exactly this criterion, not just for the US but for many other Western and Arab powers. A more idealistic and hazardous rule (though there is more than an element of economic self-interest) says: support democratically-elected regimes. This may be impossible to apply consistently across the globe. But just because the US cannot enforce democracy in large, faraway countries such as Nigeria and China, it is not obliged to refrain from cleaning up evils in small countries close to home. It is not a disgrace that the US will embark on operations that may involve scores of casualties while keeping clear of those that might risk thousands. Double standards - or triple or quadruple standards - have always been necessary in international affairs.

The trouble is that President Clinton shows few signs of being able to address such issues, much less resolve them. His recent deal with Fidel Castro was presented as a triumph - but its basis was that a dictatorial regime would prevent its citizens from travelling freely beyond its borders. (The national interest rule was operating here: Mr Clinton does not want refugees flooding Florida, particularly in an election year.) And it is far from clear what Mr Clinton would do with Haiti once he had dismissed the junta, by force or otherwise - Aristide may have won an election with 70 per cent of the vote but it is certain that the White House doesn't want him around longer than strictly necessary.

Economically, if not politically, Haiti has been a US colony throughout the century. Yet it is easily the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with savage disparities in the way its people live. Building a stable democracy in such a country will require more than a few marines. The doubt must be that either Mr Clinton or his successors will have the commitment or interest.