Non-war in Haiti makes Carter seem, well, presidential

September 19, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Bill Clinton didn't go to war -- again. I don't think anybody minds this time.

It isn't that he wasn't ready.

I saw him on TV last week, giving that speech about how the Haitians had better watch out -- or else. He had on his good suit. And if he looked a little young to be a commander-in-chief -- in fact, the more I looked at him, the more like he looked like Macaulay Culkin -- he looked firm.

Still, there were jokes. This is Bill Clinton after all.

Meaning Letterman weighed in with this line: The clearest sign that American forces were about to attack Haiti was that Clinton had just enrolled for classes at Oxford.

Firm? Well, he wasn't that firm.

After he said he really, really, really, really, really meant it this time to Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras down in Haiti, Clinton changed his mind and instead of sending the troops, he sent Jimmy Carter instead. (Carter did have Gen. Colin Powell with him and also Sen. Sam Nunn, who thinks he's a general.)

Carter and company, of course, saved the day.

Some of you may not understand how surprising this development is. Once upon a time, Jimmy Carter was not a super hero. You may be too young to remember those days.

That was back when he was president and people made jokes about him. Dan Aykroyd made a career out it. People made fun of him and his weird brother and even his daughter, Amy. It was just like he was Bill Clinton or somebody.

No one knows even today exactly how Carter got to be president -- he was then an obscure ex-governor -- except that he had the good fortune of running against Gerald Ford. But then he ran into the Ayatollah and then he ran into Ronald Reagan, and then, before you knew it, he was ex-president Jimmy Carter.

He wasn't simply an ex-president. He was the un-president. Over the next four years, Democrats spent most of their time cutting Carter's likeness out of any pictures they might have had taken ** with him.

It was generally considered that there would be a Whig elected before there'd be another Democrat.

Instead, we got Clinton, sometimes called the new Carter, except that he was also, as Ross Perot couldn't help mentioning the other day, "a draft-dodger."

And, suddenly, Clinton was taking us to war. Admit it. He doesn't exactly look the part of commander-in-chief. No former commander-in-chief had hair anything like Clinton's.

The president who looked the part was Reagan. Carter lost to Reagan, in part, because he couldn't get those helicopters to fly in the desert. Nobody championed the armed forces like Reagan did.

The funny thing is, Reagan's military experience consisted almost entirely of spending much of World War II in Culver City, Calif., doing voice-overs on Army films.

He would, however, go on to star in many war movies. I recommend "Desperate Journey" with Errol Flynn. Reagan played either Ned the navigator or Bobby the bombardier. The Nazis never had a chance.

Give Reagan this, he knew how to salute. As president, though, he got 200 Marines blown up in Lebanon. He also launched that silly invasion of Grenada in which the lines of communication were so poor that soldiers had to use their credit cards at pay phones to call back to the States in order to deploy troops stationed only a few miles away.

As the Haitian invasion seemed imminent, I was prepared for something to go wrong and then to hear Clinton's critics say how a draft-dodger had no business trying to run a military operation.

No military action is perfect. There were mistakes at Normandy. MacArthur made strategic errors in Korea. Even the smart bombs dropped in Kuwait turned out to be not quite as bright as promised.

I know just enough about war to know that it never quite goes as planned, even in a place that looks as easy to handle as Haiti, where the generals, I had heard, were busy buying up Cessnas to retaliate against the White House.

Now that won't be necessary. That's because, while most ex-presidents are playing golf, Carter, when he isn't building houses for the poor, is traveling the world, monitoring elections, promoting human rights and negotiating with dictators.

Bill Clinton thanked Carter last night. He may not even change his mind this time.

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