Clinton's next Haiti option is military intervention

May 21, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When the United Nations' expanded trade embargo against Haiti clicks into effect at midnight tonight, President Clinton will have just one remaining option for ousting the island's dictators if they remain defiant: military intervention.

As the deadline for the ruling generals' departure approaches, there is no sign that they will buckle under the latest ultimatum to step down or that increased economic punishment will eventually force them out.

"I think the embargo is not going to work, and we will see that very soon," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "That means the president has only the military option left."

Andy Bacevich, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, said: "I would bet the Haitian military would hang on and we will intervene.

"It seems to me the military is not particularly moved by any amount of suffering on the part of the population, and the regime, the elites, are able to establish a buffer so they are really protected from the worst impact of sanctions."

The trade embargo is the latest U.S.-led effort to return to power the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti who was overthrown by the military in September 1991 and now lives in exile in the United States.

In a move that could bolster support for U.S. military intervention in Haiti, the Justice Department is reortedly preparing to seek indictments on narcotics-trafficking charges against top leaders of that country's military.

A department memorandum of April 8 obtained by Newsday names 13 military officers, including Col. Michel Francois, the head of the Port-au-Prince police, as targets of a federal narcotics investigation.

Lt. Gen. Raul Cedras, commander in chief of Haiti's army, is not listed in the memorandum as a target of the investigation. However, U.S. officials say he is under separate investigation for allegedly having received a cash payment from the late Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar to protect cocaine shipments through Haiti.

The Clinton administration has refused to rule out military action, but there is little enthusiasm for it in the Pentagon. The Pentagon believes it would be easier to get into Haiti than to get out. The last time the U.S. military went into Haiti, in 1915, it didn't leave until 1934.

"It is not the entry strategy that is the issue," said a Pentagon officer who asked not to be identified. "It is the exit strategy. What are we out to accomplish? What is our timetable for completing it?"

The ragtag Haitian army poses little serious military challenge. Only about 1,600 of its 7,600 troops are regarded as remotely combat-ready. They have had no outside training since the departure of Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, and their weapons, when they work, are mostly of World War II-vintage. They have no anti-aircraft weapons or missiles and only two trainer planes.

"They would not be capable of mounting any kind of a resistance against an organized and equipped military," said the Pentagon officer. The most serious problems would arise, she said, after the military was removed.

"You are going to have to do some fairly significant nation building," said the officer. "You would have the potential for mob violence. You would have the potential for some terrorist attacks."

To stay or leave

In weighing the military option, the quandary for Mr. Clinton is: Should he restore Father Aristide and then stand by him as he tries to pacify an unruly nation and restore a collapsed economy; or should he return Father Aristide to power and then leave him to his own devices to rule the hemisphere's poorest nation?

Mr. Clinton this week listed the reasons for possible military intervention in Haiti:

* Haiti's proximity to the United States.

* The threat of a mass outflow of illegal Haitian "boat people" bound for the United States.

* The use of Haiti for drug trafficking.

* The political pressure from the 1 million Haitians living in the United States.

* The several thousand Americans living in Haiti.

* The restoration of a democratically elected leader who was overthrown by the military.

Should he decide to order the troops in, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with 650 heavily armed Marines aboard, will be on hand.

The Wasp is sailing from Norfolk, Va., to the Caribbean for eight weeks of training operations. It is the designated command ship for the U.N. blockade, known as Operation Support Democracy, and it carries Rear Adm. John J. Mazack, who would command any military action against the island.

But for critics of Mr. Clinton's foreign policy, the defiance of Haiti has come to symbolize what they perceive as the administration's lack of conviction.

Mr. Clinton ordered U.S. troops to the island on a humanitarian mission last fall, then recalled them before they landed as a group of Haitian thugs taunted them from the dockside.

More recently, the president raised the possibility of armed intervention, then appeared to back away from it, saying he wanted time for the new sanctions to work.

Mfume assails Clinton

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said: "I certainly will wait and give these sanctions an opportunity to work, but I know the military there, being as dogmatic and as brutal as they are, will find a way to skirt round them.

"I think military intervention has to be a last option. It ought to be the end of the course, but we are getting very close to running out of options, and part of the reason is that the president, in my estimation, has mishandled this whole situation for the past 16 months."

Republican critics oppose invasion and have urged Mr. Clinton to ditch Father Aristide and negotiate a return to democracy with General Cedras.

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