Much ado about something

September 20, 1994|By William Safire

Washington -- PRESIDENT CLINTON's expressed intention to use force in deposing the junta in Haiti -- despite the long-count ultimatum -- was good for the cause of freedom in the world.

The export of democracy was not the primary reason for his brinkmanship. Bill Clinton expressed his central motivation as "to secure our borders," a way to avoid saying "to stop the flow of dirt-poor, often sick, mostly uneducated and definitely persecuted black people into the United States."

Because we do not want Haitian refugees here, we threatened the use of force to make it better for them there. That ignoble but practical purpose is the hard truth of the matter, driving the intervention threat by a too-tortured president who says force is "almost always not necessary."

No national security argument could be made; this is not Panama or the Persian Gulf, choke points of global commerce. Nor is it Grenada, where American lives may have been in danger.

Tony Lake, the national security adviser, falls back on the argument that American credibility demands making good on our threats. True -- a president must never draw a gun without being ready to pull the trigger -- but it looks bad to have to risk lives to overcome an image of softness.

Nor could consistency be claimed. We do not invade Mexico to stop the flow of illegals; we do not threaten force in Cuba to turn back refugees -- on the contrary, we appease Fidel Castro with a deal to take in 25,000 a year. How then to justify the threat in Haiti?

Because it had a good chance of working. Because force would not have caused too great a loss of life. Because failure of democracy-export half in Somalia does not preordain failure in the Caribbean.

Letting Haitians drown or idle in camps is not an option. It won't cost more to feed them in Haiti than it will to feed them in Florida.

I focus on this practicality because reminders of our responsibility to promote freedom don't sell these days, and because too many non-isolationist conservatives fail to back the basic idea of intervention to ensure local human rights -- especially when it's doable and nearby.

The Haiti experience drives two points home:

1. America needs a covert capability and not just a CIA army of eavesdroppers. Somewhere between the extremes of wringing our hands helplessly and dispatching almost 20,000 troops in vast, cumbrous, publicized array, we should be able to organize and support a small revolution to knock over or buy out would-be despots. With no assassinations and plenty of congressional oversight, we should build a CIA Department of Clean Tricks.

2. The hype about multilateral force is getting out of hand. With his ludicrous enlistment of cooks and bottle washers from every country on our foreign-aid list, Bill Clinton fooled nobody but himself about this being an international operation. To pretend it is not our show to solve our refugee problem invites smirks

around the world.

Worse, he put the presidency in the impossible position of asking the United Nations for permission to invade without asking Congress for permission to wage war.

I think the president has a constitutional power to use force swiftly in limited situations even when no war fever has been built up to satisfy Vietnam-wary Pentagonians.

But by making an international case out of the Haitian junta's takeover; by stretching the squishy ultimatums over a year; by his own body language of apology and agonized reluctance in making his case to Americans, Bill Clinton gave up some of his own presidential war power to Congress while constricting the United States' freedom of action in this hemisphere's affairs.

The enforcement of the first stirring of democracy in Haiti is worthwhile on a practical level, and noble on the level occupied by Woodrow Wilson. It is not "much ado about nothing" because majority rule is not nothing.

But next time democracy is challenged nearby, let's intervene with less ado and more decisiveness.

William Safire is a syndicated columnist.

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