WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Haiti and North Korea gnaw at President Clinton with almost equal intensity, testing him as commander-in-chief. Both may ultimately be solved only with force. But only one poses a calamitous threat to the United States or the world.
Is something askew here? If Haiti were anywhere but near the Florida coast, the tiny nation would scarcely be a blip on Mr. Clinton's computer screen. Pitifully backward, ruled by a rapacious military, it's a threat only to its own impoverished masses. In shock value, it doesn't compare with Rwanda.
But because it is so close, Haiti looms large politically, cutting across racial fault lines in the Democratic Party. The first threat is that tens of thousands of Haitians could brave dangerous Caribbean waters and flee to Florida. Black, illiterate and hard-working, most are officially unwelcome because they don't fit the rarefied profile of political refugees.
The second threat is from President Clinton's black supporters, who call the government's effort to stem the refugee flow inhumane and racist. Haiti has become the new South Africa -- a rallying cry for the congressional Black Caucus and its allies among liberals and pressure groups.
These threats combine to highlight a third: the perception here and throughout the hemisphere that Haiti's small, corrupt and ill-equipped military has gotten the better of the world's only superpower and undermined Mr. Clinton's stature.
As a result, Haiti has become a persistent national security problem far out of proportion to its importance.
Since the military toppled Haiti's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991, the Bush and Clinton administrations have been embarrassed by one failed attempt after another to restore him to power.
Part of the problem is the racial and class division within Haiti itself. Father Aristide won overwhelming support among Haiti's impoverished majority. But he draws hostility and fear from most of the light-skinned rich who control its economy. And in a country without durable institutions, with a long history of violence and none of tolerance, calling Father Aristide the clear people's choice is an insufficient answer. He needs, like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, to find some way to share power and ease the fears of his opponents.
Father Aristide went at least part way toward this end in the Governors Island negotiations sponsored by the United Nations, and accepted a member of the rich establishment, Robert Malval, as prime minister.
Even if this won him support among the Haitian elite -- and it evidently didn't go far enough -- it wasn't enough to budge the Haitian military, whose leaders' wealth and security are protected by army and irregular thugs.
Sanctions, at first patchily applied, have been tightened but seem only to hurt the populace more. Aid groups scramble to meet a growing food shortage. Cash-strapped farmers are cutting down trees to earn money from charcoal, further degrading the environment.
Now, the Clinton administration has launched what may be its final step short of an invasion: squeezing the elite with a cutoff of U.S. commercial flights and financial transactions and a freeze on their American assets. The hope is that if the rich feel a pinch, they will bribe or otherwise push the three top military leaders into retirement.
What would an invasion accomplish? It would make quick work of any resistance by the Haitian military and ensure protection for Father Aristide's return. It would pave the way for a multinational force drawn from nations throughout the hemisphere to protect the president, retrain Haiti's police and start to rebuild the country. And it would remove from around President Clinton's neck the albatross of appearing to vacillate.
But the ease of overcoming Haitian resistance does not address the question: If Haiti is so weak, why is military force required to subdue it? Part of the answer is that Mr. Clinton's resolve appears episodic and uncertain.
Although Mr. Clinton has refused to rule out using military force in Haiti, he has yet to persuade either Americans or Haitians that unless Father Aristide is restored to power, he is determined to use it.
When confronted by a mob at the Port-au-Prince harbor last year, Mr. Clinton ordered a ship carrying military trainers, sent as part of the Governors Island accords, to turn around.
Indeed, there may be sound reasons not to invade. It stretches the imagination to find a vital interest worth protecting, a key standard for military action. In Panama, President George Bush had the argument that a hostile dictator was astride the canal. In Grenada, American medical students were supposedly at risk.
To the extent that Mr. Clinton spends only limited time and attention on foreign affairs, Haiti may have detracted from his handling of North Korea. And the frequently shifting policy has diminished his foreign policy clout, making the job of facing down North Korea harder.