Amid the talk of war were plans for peace CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN

September 19, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, looking grim and referring to himself as the commander in chief, sounded ready to go to war Thursday night as he explained why an American military force was poised to enter Haiti.

In hindsight, however, a little-noticed, last-minute word change in his nationally televised address offered a clue that Mr. Clinton had one more gambit to offer.

Gone was the assertion, released in advance excerpts, that the United States had "exhausted diplomacy." Instead, when Mr. Clinton actually spoke, he used a milder expression, saying, "We and other nations have worked exhaustively to find a diplomatic solution."

The reason for the change became clear the next day. Overriding the misgivings of some of his own advisers, Mr. Clinton launched a 72-hour high-wire diplomatic act, while the U.S.-led invasion force bobbed menacingly off the shores of Haiti, awaiting orders.

For several days leading up to Thursday's speech, Mr. Clinton had seriously mulled an endgame negotiating mission by former President Jimmy Carter as a way of going an extra step to avoid a military confrontation with Haiti's three-man military dictatorship.

L The choice of Mr. Carter had obvious benefits and drawbacks.

A frequent traveler to Haiti who knew many of its government and economic leaders, the former president had also played a key role in monitoring the 1990 election won by the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic and volatile Roman Catholic priest ousted in a coup nine months later.

In recent weeks, he had been in regular contact with Haitian army leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and relayed his impressions to the White House, reportedly along with a plea that he be 'allowed to give peace one last chance.

A skilled and tireless negotiator, Mr. Carter showed how relentless he could be in pursuit of a deal in 1978, when he brokered a historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, considered by many the greatest achievement of his presidency.

Nobody's messenger

But those same qualities posed dangers. The statesman of Camp David is nobody's messenger. After he won Mr. Clinton's blessing to negotiate with North Korea's Kim Il-Sung about his country's nuclear weapons program earlier this year, Mr. Carter publicly embarrassed the Clinton administration by brazenly criticizing its plans to seek United Nations sanctions against the Communist regime.

Returning home soon afterward, Mr. Carter expansively -- and prematurely -- claimed that the deal he had cut had ended the crisis.

The Haiti mission, though perhaps of less long-term significance to U.S. security, was vastly more urgent because of the thousands of American lives that would be at risk in an invasion.

"I'm holding my breath," one ranking U.S. official had said over the weekend.

The addition of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell and Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, both famously cautious men, added heft and restraint to the diplomatic mission, as did the presence of a number of White House, State Department and Pentagon aides.

General Powell, with a Caribbean family background, could speak of the coming invasion in language the Haitian military could understand. Mr. Nunn could describe how, once military hostilities begin, U.S. domestic opposition and political catcalls tend to dissipate.

From Mr. Carter's arrival in Port-au-Prince at mid-day Saturday onward, it was clear he would not limit himself to talking about how the leaders could transport themselves out of Haiti.

'A lot of issues'

In fact, as a senior administration official noted shortly even before the Carter team arrived in Haiti, "the way in which they [the Haitian dictators] would depart is not a simple thing. There are a lot of issues involved."

One was whether the Haitian military leaders actually had to leave the country, and if so for how long.

The 1993 agreement under which Father Aristide was supposed to return to power and a U.N. resolution last spring simply required that they give up power, although senior administration officials contended that "as a practical matter" they could not stay in Haiti.

Another was each of the Haitian military leaders' fears of possible retribution from the other two if he were seen to cave in first. A third factor involved what would happen to the rest of the clique-ridden Haitian military if it were suddenly severed from its leadership.

Once in Haiti, Mr. Carter did not confine himself to dealing solely with the military troika. He announced that he would emphasize "a peaceful resolution working with the leaders of Haiti," and by ,, Saturday night had played host to a range of civilian government and business leaders at the U.S. delegation's hillside hotel, the Villa Creole.

All day he and others on his team were in touch with the White House by secure telephone. Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, served as the main go-between.

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