The Haiti Zig-Zag

July 01, 1994

The operative question is whether the Clinton administration is maneuvering or just blundering into an invasion of Haiti. The preferred answer would be neither of the above. For his own sake, and the nation's, it would be better if the president continues to zig and zag without directly confronting the consequences of a feckless policy.

Ever since Mr. Clinton castigated predecessor George Bush for his "cruel" and "inhuman" practice of returning Haitian refugees on the high seas forthwith to their homeland, he has been in a box of his own making. On his inauguration day in January 1993, tens of thousands of Haitians were poised for the risky journey in flimsy boats to Florida until Mr. Clinton made it clear that Mr.

Bush's techniques would be continued after all.

What came after hardly redounds to the credit of the U.S. As a show of supposed commitment to the return of Haiti's exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the administration ratcheted up economic sanctions that have mainly increased the suffering of Haiti's impoverished masses. Not until the past week did it start to tighten the rope on the island's privileged elite in the hope this would push the ruthless junta chief, Gen. Raoul Cedras, into cushy exile, a fate meted out in 1986 to dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Meanwhile, under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, the White House has executed another switchback by promising that would-be refugees would be given a fair hearing to determine whether they are entitled to political asylum. When this change was announced several weeks ago, the deputy national security adviser, Samuel Berger, proclaimed that the increase in the refugee flow would not be "overwhelming."

Wrong. The flood of refugees has already engulfed U.S. processing ships standing off shore. The administration is hastily reopening a tent city at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, and is making arrangements with Britain to channel subsequent overflows to the Turks and Caicos islands. President Clinton seems to be willing to populate the entire Caribbean with Haitian refugees just so long as they don't come to Florida. Now the line from the president's new Haiti policy coordinator, William Gray, is that the White House anticipated this situation all along. Sure.

All of these improvisations might be tolerable except for two things: First, the world image of the United States is being trashed once again. Second, the situation could indeed get so out of control that the U.S. would have little choice other than to send in the Marines. The last time they arrived, in 1915, they stayed until 1934. This time, Washington script-writers project a swift, clean operation in which the Marines would quickly pass the baton to an international peace-keeping force.

This scenario is just too neat for what could be a very messy entanglement. In our view, the administration had better wrestle with this problem by other than military means.

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