Democracy at the Point of a Gun

May 29, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton, who feels our pain and wears mostly briefs and can't keep quiet, recently rattled off many reasons, or perhaps pretexts, for a splendid little invasion of Haiti -- to borrow the words of John Hay about another Caribbean adventure, the 1898 war with Cuba.

So here we go again. As with Bosnia, Somalia and China, the president is looking around for a dignified way to climb down from the moral high ground, where he is not the first to find the wind cold and the prospect unpleasant.

His reasons for invading include: Haiti is ''in our backyard.'' And a flood of refugees may put to sea in unseaworthy boats, jeopardizing their lives (and reminding people that he called the Bush administration's resistance to Haitian refugees cruel). And some drugs pass through Haiti en route to the United States. (Many more drugs pass through Puerto Rico.) And Haiti is now this hemisphere's only country governed by a military junta that toppled an elected leader.

Here is a reason not to invade: baseball. Lawrence Pezzullo, former special envoy to Haiti, notes something about the last U.S. invasion of that country: We were there from 1915 to 1934 ''and it still strikes me that it's the only place in the Caribbean that doesn't play baseball. Every place else we left something behind. In Haiti, we left nothing.''

And here is a reason for abandoning the economic sanctions that are the latest futility intended to convince the military leaders to restore President Aristide: The sanctions are killing people, particularly children.

Father Aristide may not be as unstable and unsavory as many U.S. officials believe, but he did encourage violence against his opponents and his return to power probably would do next to nothing to make Haiti democratic or prosperous. Nevertheless, President Clinton is being pushed into rashness regarding Haiti by various liberal factions, including the Congressional Black Caucus, an important component of his shrinking core support.

It is understandable why the Black Caucus is concerned about Haiti, the world's oldest black republic and the product of the only successful slave revolt in history. But that is insufficient reason for Mr. Clinton to offer an American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. That doctrine said the Soviet Union would guarantee that communism, once imposed, would not be overthrown. The Clinton Doctrine would be that the U.S. must guarantee that democracy, once attained, endures.

That doctrine would be dubious in any case, but is inapplicable to Haiti. Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute says the idea of ''restoring'' Haitian democracy is a ''radical misnomer'' because ''democracy even in the most limited sense has never existed there, and Aristide's return by no means guarantees its introduction.''

Indeed, his survival there cannot be guaranteed. Suppose he were restored by U.S. force and then were assassinated. (Of Haiti's 20 rulers -- including two emperors and a king -- between 1843 and 1915, 16 were overthrown or assassinated.) What then would be the United States' obligations under the Clinton Doctrine? Remember, when in 1963 the United States was complicit in changing South Vietnam's government by the murder of President Diem, the U.S. became stuck to Vietnam's future.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a Haiti hawk, says, ''By tolerating their defiance and unrelenting brutality, we have empowered Haiti's military thugs.'' Oh? If the United States does not overthrow a dictator, this ''toleration'' is tantamount to ''empowerment''? Such slippery language can put this nation on a slippery slope to many interventions and much ''nation-building.''

Haiti was the poorest nation in this hemisphere even before the U.S.-led embargo began to bite the weakest Haitians. Now, while powerful Haitians prosper by making the embargo porous for goods for Haitians with money, Kenneth Freed of the Los Angeles Times reports from Haiti on 18-month-old Bobouson Myrtil and his three siblings. Their mother says, ''They will all die.'' Says Mr. Freed:

''Added to this is the sour irony of a U.S. policy that exempts the most powerful of Haitian civilians supporting the coup from travel restrictions and asset-freezing . . . on grounds that 'they may be of use to us' in the future, as one U.S. official put it.''

Of use to us, that is, as we continue our splendid little adventure in nation-building, a project the Clinton administration evidently considers important enough to justify the slow killing of children.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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