TV images from Somalia shape policy Haiti's strongmen are emboldened

October 13, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in a week, the United States has been sent into retreat by a Third World strongman.

And television helped accomplish it.

Last week, Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid, by capturing an Army officer and having U.S. servicemen's bodies paraded around the streets of Mogadishu, forced President Clinton to commit himself to a firm withdrawal date.

Yesterday, a U.S. warship carrying military trainers and engineers retreated from Haitian waters a day after fewer than 50 thugs loyal to military commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras staged a menacing demonstration on the waterfront.

"We are going to turn this into another Somalia," people among the demonstrators vowed Monday.

Clearly, General Cedras had seen and learned from television coverage of last week's events in Somalia, a U.S. official acknowledged yesterday.

"When they saw the calls for us to pull out [of Somalia], and heightened concern about security measures, they took advantage of that -- no doubt about it," the official said. Members of the Haitian elite have access to Cable News Network if not to other U.S. commercial networks.

The Rev. Antoine Adrien, an adviser to exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, said General Cedras was also probably influenced by Sunday's television footage showing leading members of Congress either opposed to or nervous about sending troops to Haiti.

"The problem was there was no one voice speaking for the United States. After hearing [the concerns voiced by members of Congress] on Sunday it was obvious [the anti-Aristide military] was going to stage something," Father Adrien said.

The incident speaks volumes about the influence of television over post-Cold War diplomacy. But it says even more about how the world's only remaining superpower is projecting its power abroad, and how Congress can be manipulated even by the weakest of potential adversaries.

In Somalia and Haiti, the United States dispatched troops without the usual military objective of winning something. As a result, their retreat is hardly comparable to a battlefield defeat. But to those overseas who make decisions based on their estimate of American determination, there's not much difference.

"Part of the problem here is that the military in Haiti sense a vacillation, a weakening possibly of resolve in light of Somalia and they are taking advantage of it," said Ira Kurzban, chief counsel to Father Aristide.

Troops were sent to Somalia to secure the delivery of relief supplies and to prevent hundreds of thousands from starving. Now, Mr. Clinton has doubled the number of troops on hand but has promised to pull out all U.S. combat troops by March 31.

Congress may advance that deadline if Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has his way.

In Haiti, the purpose of sending about 600 U.S. troops was to provide training to professionalize the military and police forces and to help rebuild the nation's crumbled infrastructure. The troops were dispatched as part of an agreement to allow the return of Father Aristide on Oct. 30.

The real U.S. pressure on Haiti was never military.

Instead, the United States and its key allies in the hemisphere used a combination of economic pressure and political isolation to persuade the Haitian military leaders to step down voluntarily and allow Father Aristide to return.

"The international community had not wanted to go in with force to make Haitians submit at the point of a gun," a U.S. official said yesterday. If they had, a solution would have been imposed without addressing underlying problems, he said.

Key to the agreement that provided for Father Aristide's return was the threat of worldwide sanctions, including seizure of assets held overseas by members of the anti-Aristide elite. Under this threat, General Cedras and the military quickly capitulated, agreeing at Governors Island in New York to surrender power to Father Aristide and not resist his return.

Father Aristide's supporters believe the United Nations acted prematurely to remove sanctions and say it allowed General Cedras and Michel Francois, Port-au-Prince police chief, to remain in office too long.

Mr. Kurzban urged yesterday that sanctions be reimposed, accompanied by a naval blockade of the Caribbean nation.

Father Aristide, the United States and its Western Hemisphere allies may still succeed in pressuring General Cedras and Chief Francois to step down on Friday as scheduled under the Governors Island accords.

If that happens, Father Aristide can return in triumph to a restored democracy.

The Clinton administration's message yesterday was clear. "I want the Haitians to know that I am dead serious about them honoring the [democracy] agreement that they made," Mr. Clinton said.

But the big question is whether Mr. Clinton was able to drown out the nervousness in Congress and what the Haitian military had already witnessed in Somalia and in the waters off Port-au-Prince: a superpower in retreat.

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