Clinton isn't 'ruling out' options, but he has none

ON POLITICS

May 04, 1994|By JACK WITCOVER & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- There was a hollow ring to President Clinton's insistence that he is "not ruling out any options" in DTC dealing with the continuing crisis in Haiti. As a practical matter, the president has no options that offer any real hope of forcing the military leaders who control Haiti to step aside in favor of the exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But political leaders in general -- and American presidents in particular -- cannot simply throw up their hands and announce that some problem is insoluble. We are a nation of optimists, and Clinton is a classic case. Only an optimist would ever have imagined making it from Little Rock to the White House as he did.

So the president is in character when he says he isn't ruling out any options and begins talking about more and tougher economic sanctions on Haiti. That is the kind of problem-solving approach expected of a president and especially one like Clinton, who always seems to have a six-point program for every situation.

But the sanctions already in place apparently have not fazed the military leaders who have controlled the country since 1991. And, according to many reports from Haiti, the measures are putting an additional squeeze on many ordinary Haitians already living in fear and squalor. Meanwhile, the Haitian military is responding to the heightened tensions in its usual way, as indicated by fresh reports in the Miami Herald of troops raiding a village and shooting rebellious peasants in northern Haiti just last week.

The situation in Haiti, then, is essentially intractable. But so is the reality that the Vietnam syndrome is still very much a fact of American political life these days. The president and his advisers know they dare not risk the heavy casualties that might be involved in the use of ground troops in Bosnia. And they know the demand for military action against the regime in Haiti is coming largely from black political leaders and a few like-minded liberal Democrats and not from an aroused citizenry at large.

It is probably fair to say that Clinton has even less margin for error in Haiti, given the history of the attempt last October to land some military advisers at Port-au-Prince that was thwarted by Haitian thugs on the docks who forced the USS Harlan County to steam away. The last thing the president needs is another such embarrassment.

Clinton's political problem with Haiti is not unlike the others he is encountering on other foreign policy questions. He is a victim of his own campaign rhetoric. He is the one who criticized then-President George Bush for turning back the Haitian refugees and who now finds himself following the same policy.

Paradoxically, however, it is Bush who may have offered Clinton at least part of a way out with some hope of saving face. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, the former president said it would be a "tremendous mistake" to send U.S. troops into Haiti and, more to the point, that the time may have come for "a significant shift" in the policy founded on the notion of installing Aristide in his rightful place.

But it is easier for a Republican on the sidelines than a Democrat in office to talk about abandoning Aristide, at least in public. It is no secret that many of those who have dealt with Aristide and know his record in Haiti consider him something less than a model of political sainthood. But the issue has been drawn so sharply by black politicians -- Democrats all -- that Clinton dare not talk about such a "significant shift," at least right now.

Trying to regain control of the agenda for health care reform, Clinton is beset by foreign policy problems. One day it is the crisis in Bosnia, another the recalcitrance of the North Koreans on nuclear weapons, then another the dispute with China over human rights and trade privileges and still another the flood of refugees from the slaughter in Rwanda.

Bill Clinton doesn't have any easy answer to any of these problems. They don't lend themselves to study commissions or six-point programs or schmoozing with other policy wonks at Renaissance Weekends. And there is no reason to believe the talk about "not ruling out any options" means much either.

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