Refugee riot in 1980 gives glimpse of Clinton in crisis

October 19, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It was the biggest crisis of Bill Clinton's first term and the most violent of his career:

Hundreds of angry Cuban refugees, breaking out of Arkansas's sprawling Fort Chaffee army reservation in 1980, attacked state police and National Guardsmen with broken pieces of sidewalk and even live snakes before being driven back inside by batons and buckshot, where full-scale rioting and burning ensued.

Vastly outnumbered police, meanwhile, kept a worried watch on an inflamed local populace ready to defend family and property with all the guns and ammunition at hand.

Mr. Clinton went to the scene by helicopter, got briefed, backed the use by the state police of deadly force and authorized additional manpower. He demanded more military assistance from the White House and, after President Jimmy Carter dispatched an aide to Arkansas, announced a federal pledge for improved base security and worked to ease area residents' fears.

His quick and calm response, as recounted by state police and National Guard officials, failed to prevent the Cuban refugee issue from becoming an overall political disaster for Mr. Clinton, contributing to his defeat in 1980.

But it offers a clue to how the Arkansas governor, untested in national security, would function in a crisis as commander-in-chief: comfortable with using force and willing to give wide latitude to trusted commanders on the ground.

Mr. Clinton's capacity to command and lead in an emergency remains one of the biggest uncertainties as he stands poised, if polls are correct, to win the White House 15 days from now.

Fueling voter doubts in his closing statement during Thursday night's debate, President Bush urged viewers to imagine a sudden world or national crisis and asked, "Who has the perseverance, the character, the integrity, the maturity to get the job done?"

Crisis management

Mr. Clinton has obscured the image of a draft-avoiding opponent of the Vietnam War by backing Mr. Bush's crisis-management decisions during and after the war with Iraq and assuming a more forceful posture than the president's in protecting Muslims brutalized by Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Asked in an Aug. 10 interview how he would decide whether to put American men and women in harm's way, Mr. Clinton pointed to the Fort Chaffee experience and to his willingness to allow guardsmen to train for potential conflict in Central America.

"I have had to command the National Guard in some very difficult positions," Mr. Clinton told CBS' "This Morning" program. "I had to make a decision about whether to let them train in Central America. I had to call them out to quell [a] riot of Cuban refugees in 1980. I had to authorize use of force in that action, and I did so to try to save lives. I didn't have any problem with doing that. . . .

"I'll make the best judgment I can based on the expert advice I get from military leaders and other leaders and based on what seems to be the right thing to do for the United States at the time," he said.

All evidence indicates that he followed that pattern after the Fort Chaffee riot. The question is whether he could have prevented it in the first place.

A full picture of the episode shows the 33-year-old chief executive as less of a commander than a supporting actor, pushed to the sidelines by competing, uncoordinated federal agencies and unable to get the White House, then controlled by his own party, to act forcefully to prevent violence until it was too late.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift, the sudden mass exodus used by Fidel Castro to empty mental hospitals and prisons, caught the White House, Arkansas and the country as a whole off guard. With Florida overwhelmed, U.S. officials looked elsewhere for sites to process tens of thousands of refugees.

Fort Chaffee was a logical choice. The 72,000-acre Army Reserve camp had been used to process refugees from Indochina in the mid-1970s with such success that even area residents recall the experience favorably.

Mr. Clinton at first seemed to welcome the new influx. After Mr. Carter called him, the governor told a crowd at a courthouse ribbon-cutting that Arkansas and American citizens "must accept our responsibility as the leader of the free world," the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial reported.

Praise from White House

Carter White House officials remember with gratitude his refusal to "demagogue" the issue.

"I thought Governor Clinton was extraordinarily cooperative and understanding," said Jack Watson, then a top White House official and now an Atlanta lawyer. "It was not a good situation politically for him, but he didn't duck. His actions were such that he understood what we were doing and why. He worked with us in every conceivable way to make it work."

But despite White House assurances of adequate security, the situation quickly spun out of control in a nightmare of competing federal agencies not communicating with one another, delays in processing and rising alarm over unruly young men among the 19,000 refugees.

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