The Liberal Imperialist

September 18, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Critics of President Clinton's liberal imperialism -- the colonialism of compassion -- miss the point when they say Haiti involves no vital U.S. interest. The pristine absence of anything as coarse as a vital U.S. interest is what recommends this adventure to its enthusiasts. Just as in domestic policy the proof of liberal virtue is generosity with other peoples' money, the proof in foreign policy is willingness to spend the nation's blood, treasure and prestige for abstractions rather than concrete national gain.

There is a similar aspect to President Clinton's simultaneous solicitousness toward the U.N. and his disregard of a Democratic-controlled Congress and the Constitution. Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., breezily dismisses any constitutional obligation to consult Congress before invading Haiti, saying this is a ''police action,'' not an act of war. James Madison did not anticipate such labeling of a full-scale premeditated assault on a nation with which we are at peace and which poses no threat to the United States.

Ms. Albright evidently regards the English language the way Mr. Clinton regards the health-care system -- as properly government property. But her semantic sleight-of-hand is too intellectually feeble to be as dangerous as Secretary of State Warren Christopher's notion that Congress is implicit in any invasion that Congress has not acted to stop. The idea is that congressional approval for any presidential use of military force can be inferred from the absence of congressional action to prevent it. The implication -- that no president is obliged to respect any constitutional restraint, only a leash imposed by Congress for each particular occasion -- is, in a word, Nixonian.

Reasons so far offered for an invasion include:

We must invade because we said we would.

U.S. credibility (with North Korea; or something) is at stake.

President Clinton's credibility is at stake.

The U.N.'s credibility is at stake.

America (this from ''Blame America First Democrats'') is to blame for Haiti's condition (because we trained the Haitian military; or something).

We are duty-bound to do all we can for democracy everywhere (or in this hemisphere, or at least ''in our back yard'').

Terrible things are happening in Haiti and we must stop terrible things ''in our own back yard.'' (The south Bronx is another matter.)

And so on.

So far we have not heard that the invasion is justified because the president ''feels Haiti's pain,'' although that explanation would suit his style of government-as-autobiography. However, a proliferation of rationalizations for a government action often betokens reticence about the real reason. Accordingly, consider the words of Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoken angrily on CNN's ''Crossfire'' Wednesday:

'' . . . and of course when you say, 'Is this little black president [Aristide] worth the loss of one American white life?' the [answer] -- hey, it has to be no.''

Domestic racial politics has spilled over into Haitian policy. It is impossible to prove, but plausible: There would be no movement toward invasion if there were no Black Caucus, or if the caucus shared the priorities of the vast majority of black Americans.

Perhaps planners of the invasion have adequately considered all the ''then what?'' questions. When Japanese leaders asked Admiral Yamamoto if he could conduct an attack on Pearl Harbor, he said: With shallow-running torpedoes, and luck, yes. And I will run wild in the Pacific for perhaps a year. But then what?

After U.S. forces have subdued their adversaries in Haiti, then what?

What if General Cedras and his henchmen step across the border into the Dominican Republic, from there to foment such trouble as Haiti does not spontaneously generate? What if refugees in flight from Haitian score-settling anarchy destabilize the Dominican Republic? (The administration that produced the Clinton health-care bill obviously is not impressed by the problem of the unintended consequences of government actions, but still . . . )

What if our efforts to prevent the assassination of President Aristide (surely prevention becomes our responsibility) fail? If he survives until the next election, are we, having committed ourselves to the ''restoration of democracy,'' responsible for guaranteeing electoral proprieties?

These interesting questions arise at a propitious moment. The collapse of the president's health-care overreaching coincides with his fling at colonialism, and both come eight weeks before elections. Do Americans want government hubris in domestic policy, and overreaching (''nation-building'') combined with obeisance to the U.N. in foreign policy? Let's put it to a vote on November 8.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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