Boxed in on Haiti

May 24, 1994

Step by step, President Clinton seems to be maneuvering himself into a position on Haiti where his only option may be military intervention. If that is the president's intention, it should be reversed forthwith. He must know that two-thirds of the American people oppose such a step; that with the first American casualties there will be a clamor for withdrawal of U.S. forces; that the last time Marines marched ashore in Haiti, in 1915, they were there 19 years and after taking 126 combat and non-combat casualties left behind a trained -- and oppressive -- military.

The ideal solution evidently sought by Mr. Clinton is sufficient international pressure to force the Haitian generals now in control into exile. There is a precedent: In 1986, the United States was able to send dictator Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier packing. But there is another precedent: his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, successfully defied a U.S. show of force in 1963.

By tightening the embargo on Haiti over last weekend, the world community decided in effect to increase the suffering of the Haitian people in order to liberate them. Food and medicine are the exception. But as jobs and private-sector imports of vital commodities disappear, aid organizations warn that hunger and death will increase.

Some of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's more fervent supporters, both foreign and domestic, are willing to have the poorest people in the hemisphere's poorest country pay this price.

The situation could force President Clinton's hand. Having taken on a certain responsibility for worsening the plight of the Haitian people and having drawn only defiance from Haiti's military government, he may find himself with little choice other than to order the Marines ashore. Some 650 aboard the USS Wasp are moving into position.

What then? Will U.S. citizens be taken hostage in a desperate counter-move by the present government? Will Haitian forces crumble at the first sight of the Marines, as their leaders flee to luxurious exile? Will Father Aristide's revenge-minded followers then turn on the soldiers that remain? Or will a form of civil war break out, part ethnic and part class-based, that will make a mockery of quick-solution scenarios? And even if U.S. forces stay the course, under the facade of a multi-national intervention, just what will their mission be?

To feed the masses? That's the easy part, as humanitarian successes in Somalia illustrate. To crack down on violence-minded factions? That's a much tougher role, one the U.S. could not sustain in Somalia. To rebuild the Haitian government and economy? That's a task the U.S. never really attempted in Somalia, that it flunked the last time out in Haiti and that it is unlikely to assume again, given the budget squeeze and public opinion.

So Mr. Clinton is boxed in by the Haiti crisis, and so is our country. Any solution other the quick capitulation of the present military government offers little but pain and foreboding.

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