Agreement with Cedras gets Clinton off the hook

ON POLITICS

September 20, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Much depends now on what happens on the ground in Haiti, but the agreement struck with its military dictators in the short term at least should get President Clinton out of an extremely perilous political corner at home.

The word that the planes taking paratroopers to invade Haiti were already in the air when the deal was completed by former President Jimmy Carter in Port-au-Prince told the world that Clinton in this instance meant what he had long threatened.

At the same time, the arrangement meant substituting for the ugly word "invasion" the less politically volatile word "occupation" under the United Nations mandate. Considering that polls at the time indicated that the American people and Congress were overwhelmingly opposed to an invasion, it was not an inconsiderable distinction.

The dispatch of Carter, along with retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, was a political as well as diplomatic master stroke. Had it failed, Clinton could have said that he really did go the extra mile to avert an invasion. Rather, it was, as Carter said, "a superb balancing of the use of American military power conjunctively with the proper use of diplomacy that has defused a potential crisis that could have cost many lives."

Although Clinton insisted that the only central matter negotiated was the terms under which the de facto Haitian leaders would relinquish power, it is obvious that the deal fell short of the impression that Clinton left in his earlier ultimatum telling the leaders, "Your time is up."

Randall Robinson, one of the strongest U.S. supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has already warned that the failure to stipulate specifically that Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his chief cohorts would have to leave Haiti is fraught with future peril for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, as well as for democracy's chances there.

But President Clinton insisted in his news conference yesterday that the agreement, which includes having Cedras and the others in a cooperative posture, "dramatically increases the chances of a peaceful transition of power and restoration of democracy."

Clinton at the same time wisely warned again of the considerable risks involved for American military personnel dispatched to Haiti. But the manner in which they are being deployed makes Clinton far less vulnerable to allegations that he recklessly and bullheadedly put Americans in harm's way. His own record of avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War always hangs over any decision he makes that puts Americans in uniform at risk.

As for Carter, the agreement enhances his reputation as the best former president the country has had in years. It should boost his chances to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for which he has been nominated, and which he should have received for achieving the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt when he was in the Oval Office.

Although Carter is regarded warily in the Clinton White House as somewhat of a loose cannon in the foreign policy field -- his successful intervention in North Korea was originally deplored as meddling -- he was the right man in the right place at the right time. If the Haitian deal turns sour, he will share some of the blame with Clinton, but for now he looks as if he has again thrown the president a political life preserver.

How Clinton emerges politically from the crisis will depend to a large degree not only on the behavior of Cedras, his chief associates and the often brutal military under his command, but also on how faithfully Aristide lives up to his own commitments.

There obviously was a great deal of dicey hand-holding with Aristide in the days leading up to the 11th-hour agreement. Trotting him out the other day to assure the military junta that there would not be retribution delivered upon them if they stepped aside and that he would resume power in a spirit of conciliation was all part of the White House-orchestrated scenario to encourage capitulation.

The big question is whether the presence of overwhelming military force will induce Cedras to live up to his word to do what, in the earlier Governors Island agreement, he once before refused to do. A difficult and politically perilous road still lies ahead for Clinton, but he has, for now anyway, avoided going over the precipice of a very unpopular foreign policy decision.

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