National security and vital interests are certain to be invoked by Bill Clinton when he addresses the American people tonight, presumably to explain why their ships and troops are poised to descend upon this small, impoverished country. There seems no doubt that the assembled forces will go in: the Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, explained yesterday that they would enter Haiti either to depose the military junta or to preserve order in the event of its abdication. Bill Clinton is on the brink of another big foreign policy decision. After Somalia and Bosnia, he had better get it right.
It is as well to set out the reasons to support President Clinton in his actions over Haiti. The US has carefully avoided a blundering unilateral intervention. It proceeded with sober legality through the United Nations to assemble a force that draws on soldiers and sailors from 20 countries. It behaved with patience in trying to coerce the junta towards surrender and with skill in building a broad base of international support.
Underlying this policy is the belief, evoked by Mr Lake, that the United States must maintain its credibility, it must defend democratic values and it must do everything possible to prevent destabilisation in the Caribbean. Cuba may be the next crisis point in the area. Haiti therefore provides both an example and a test for American policy.
Nor should there be any doubt of the essential decency, however self- interested, of the cause in which Mr Clinton is acting. Haiti is a plundered land, sunk in superstition and antique politics. Its rural economy has been bled dry by a witless, grasping oligarchy. The armed forces could spring from the more grotesque pages of Graham Greene. Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the only leader ever elected by Haiti's people in a relatively fair election, was exiled to languish, imbibing political realities, in the US. Few clearer cases could be imagined of the much-disputed 'duty to intervene'.
All that said, it remains a troubling fact that the fate of a tragic small country should occupy international attention chiefly because of its effect on the fortunes of the greatest military power on earth. That, alas, is the truth. On parade in Haiti will be Bill Clinton's resolve and his ability to manage violent upheaval with presidential authority. It is therefore disturbing to see the administration pushed towards action by bellicose elements in Congress and tugged back from the brink by every transient opinion poll showing public concern.
Meanwhile, human rights activists in Haiti are being killed or cower in hiding. Mr Lake and Mr Talbott spell out a credible case. President Clinton must convince Americans and their allies of its justice and its urgency.Reuse content