Race factor increased tension of Haiti situation



WASHINGTON -- The unspoken element in the complex political equation of the Haiti issue is race.

President Clinton and his advisers in the White House are well aware of it, and so are those critics in Congress who resisted an invasion. But it is not an issue white politicians feel free to discuss publicly because it involves saying out loud what so many of them know to be true -- that there is a strong strain of racial resentment among whites in the American electorate today.

The Haiti question is by no means the only one on which this attitude toward blacks is a factor. It is clearly important, for example, in any discussions of welfare reform, immigration and street crime.

Clinton showed his understanding of the racial attitudes during his campaign for president two years ago. He carefully avoided situations in which he would seem to be playing the traditional Democratic liberal appealing for black support. When he appeared at rallies with blacks, for example, he always seemed to do it as part of a campaign schedule for the day on which there would be some other event more likely to beguile the television networks.

Candidate Clinton also took two actions that sent a message to whites among whom suspicion of blacks is most pervasive -- working-class Democrats who supported Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s.

The first was candidate Clinton's emphasis on welfare reform and the need for greater "responsibility" on the part of recipients -- a message many whites and blacks alike saw as directed primarily at blacks. The second, and politically most important, was his decision to deliberately distance himself from Jesse Jackson, the most prominent spokesman for poor black people and a black leader widely viewed within the political community as a burden for the Democrats. Clinton got away with the strategy because he had strong backing from other prominent black leaders for whom getting a Democrat into the White House was the overriding priority.

The race question is particularly obvious in the issue of whether to invade Haiti because the most prominent supporters of a hard line have been chairman Kweisi Mfume and most, although not all, members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

This does not suggest that voters' resistance to an invasion is based solely on the fact that the people in peril in Haiti are blacks. There was also strong opposition to any major United States role in Bosnia when that possibility arose last year and was quickly put aside.

The opinion polls consistently find a clear current of isolationism in the electorate these days that has been heightened by economic concerns and the crime problem. The message is plain that voters are simply unwilling to risk American lives in foreign interventions unless there is some obvious and direct threat to the United States, a case that was difficult for the president to make about the Haiti situation.

In some cases in the past, public opinion has been swayed markedly by the television coverage of black people living in horrific conditions that obviously needed someone's attention. That was the case, for example, during the famine in Somalia more than three years ago. But the situation in Somalia now, despite all the U.S. and United Nations efforts, is not a great improvement over what it was before those efforts were made. The starvation is less widespread but the warlords are still in charge. Opinion on that adventure turned quickly sour when the networks showed pictures of the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

The crisis in Haiti is quite different but has enough superficial similarities to that in Somalia to have made it appear foolish to intervene.

As a practical political matter, the president was left with few realistic alternatives. To back away would have invited ridicule and hardened the picture of Clinton as weak and vacillating.

So the president rolled the dice and perhaps bet his political future on the ability of either his emissaries or the military to remove the generals. The race factor simply increased the pressure.

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