The Haiti Zig-Zag

July 08, 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 followed 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 increased the suffering of Haiti's impoverished masses. Not until recently did it start to tighten the rope on the privileged elite in the hope of pushing the ruthless junta chief, Gen. Raoul Cedras, into cushy exile.

Meanwhile, under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, the White House 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 three 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 engulfed U.S. processing ships. This led to another reversal: Haitians fleeing by boat will be barred from the U.S., and shuttled to temporary "safe havens" in Panama, Antigua and Dominica. The U.S. is hastily reopening a tent city at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, and processing overflows in the Turks and Caicos islands. Mr. Clinton seems to ** be willing to populate the entire Caribbean with Haitian refugees so long as they don't come to Florida. Meanwhile, the president's adviser on Haiti, William Gray, warned that military action "is on the table," as the Pentagon dispatched ships to the Caribbean. A day later, Mr. Gray's earlier statements -- and the refugee policy itself -- were revised again.

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 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 19 years. 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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