Clinton brings his case for invasion to the public

September 15, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Tonight, President Clinton attempts to generate support among a skeptical American public for a military invasion of Haiti that's turned things upside down: He's been encouraged to invade by some of the most prominent liberals in Congress and denounced for the idea by conservative veterans groups such as the American Legion.

Oddly enough, Mr. Clinton plans to make the same case once made by the Bush administration: namely, that although Haiti poses no direct military threat, it is in the United States' long-term security interests to bring down the military leaders who seized Haiti and exiled its president three years ago.

"We have literally exhausted every available alternative, and the time has come for those people to get out. They can still leave. They do not have to push this to a confrontation," Mr. Clinton said yesterday.

In his speech at 9 p.m. from the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton will outline one reason for moving quickly. Using the sort of imagery that tends to make Americans furious, he will use the accelerating examples of political murder, torture and rape being carried out by the Haitian military bosses against their own people.

He will also argue that an unstable Haiti creates the potential for instability elsewhere in the Caribbean and for immigration problems for the United States. Furthermore, he will insist that U.S. credibility rests on backing up its threats.

Finally, Mr. Clinton is expected to argue that as fragile democracies are emerging in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, restoring exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power will send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States' commitment to democracy is more than lip service.

"This is a time when new democracies are being created in this hemisphere and around the world," said Calvin Mitchell, a White House national security spokesman. "The president will say that it's important for the mature democracies to support them and defend them."

President shows pictures

As a preview yesterday, Mr. Clinton angrily showed reporters a grisly set of color photographs of victims of Haitian government atrocities.

"If this is allowed to stand, then democracy elsewhere will be more fragile," he said. "The time is at hand: They have to leave, and they're going to leave one way or the other."

Mr. Clinton's speech tonight appears to be directed at three main audiences.

The first is the American public, which opposes the imminent invasion by a margin of 2 to 1. The second is Congress, which is making noises about wanting a vote on whether the president should proceed. The third are the Haitian military leaders themselves, especially Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, army chief of staff Philippe Biamby and police chief Michel Francois.

All three audiences are tightly intertwined.

Public opinion tepid

Congress is chary of getting involved because the voters are not yet gung-ho. And because U.S. public opinion is so tepid, the three Haitian military leaders have not appeared to take the repeated Clinton administration threats seriously.

Asked in an interview yesterday who the primary audience was for the president's address, Vice President Al Gore responded:

"It's the American people, but anytime a president speaks there are always multiple audiences."

"It's definitely directed at [the Haitian military leaders], too," said one administration official. "We want them to watch the president themselves, watch what the president's words are -- and how he says them. Have them see that this is serious."

But if the president's resolve is doubted in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, that does not seem to be the case on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress opposed to military intervention fear that Mr. Clinton wants to move either this weekend or early next week before Congress has time to act on a number of opposition resolutions circulating yesterday.

Lawmakers' stance reversed

"I don't think he can make his case, [but] the invasion is going to happen, if not this week, probably next week," said Senate Republican leader Bob Dole. "The president has made up his mind."

In the budding debate over Haiti, the positions of many members of Congress seemed neatly reversed from four years ago. Then, with a Republican president in the White House, Republicans, including Mr. Dole, insisted that Congress had no right to cripple the credibility of a commander in chief. Liberals, particularly Democratic members of the congressional Black Caucus, warned of U.S. soldiers returning in body bags and argued against an invasion.

This time, the Black Caucus was at the forefront of the effort to restore Father Aristide to power. And it was the American Legion, which generally supports projection of U.S. power, that asked Mr. Clinton to hold off.

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