Events in Haiti remain beyond Clinton's control

ON POLITICS

September 21, 1994|By JACK GRMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- In "The Moon is Down," John Steinbeck's play about the problems encountered by the Nazis in occupying Norway during World War II, a character delivers this memorable line: "The flies have captured the flypaper."

It is a description that might be applied today to President Clinton's military occupation of Haiti. Although the president has escaped the immediate political disaster that might have resulted from a bloody invasion, he is now faced with the prospect of months in which his political fortunes will be held hostage to events in Haiti he cannot possibly control.

If all goes according to plan, the Haiti story will fade off the front pages and the network news programs after a few weeks to be replaced by some new sensation. This assumes that Raoul Cedras and his fellow "thugs" -- as Clinton described them only last week -- will keep their commitments to step aside and allow Jean-Bertrand Aristide to reclaim the presidency.

But the possibilities for problems seem endless. Given his history of broken promises, there is always the chance Cedras won't go quietly after all, thus requiring the United States to use the military force it planned to unleash before the agreement. What if the Haitian Parliament refuses to vote the amnesty included in the deal? And what if new fighting breaks out between the hostile factions in the Haitian population or between Haitians and U.S. soldiers on the ground? Or what if Cedras steps down as scheduled but then chooses to participate in Haitian politics leading the opposition to Aristide? Or what if Aristide is unable or unwilling to deliver on his commitment to prevent his supporters from seeking vengeance against their oppressors of the past three years? Who is going to be in charge of disarming those who used to be called Tontons Macoute and who are still very heavily armed and very much in evidence as an intimidating force?

The notion of "restoring democracy" in Haiti has always been flawed. The democratic tradition of Haiti really consists of that one election of Aristide three years ago, quickly followed by the armed coup that overturned the result. And how can you talk of democracy when the vast majority of your citizens are hungry and illiterate?

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that putting Aristide back in office next month would be enough for the president to call the mission accomplished and turn his attention to other things. One thing that is clear in public opinion polls is that most Americans don't give a hoot about Haiti.

If, however, there is serious trouble that results in heavy American casualties, Clinton will bear the full brunt of the political blame. The television pictures will make that certain and, if not, then the Republicans will do the job -- if not in time for the Nov. 8 midterm elections, then just in time for the opening of the 1996 presidential campaign right after those elections.

There is a certain rough justice in this possibility. The president cast the die on Haiti originally during the 1992 campaign when he found it easy to assail the incumbent Republican, George Bush, for policy failures on both Haiti and Bosnia. Once elected, Clinton found both situations more vexing than he expected, which led him to several policy reversals that have raised widespread doubts in the electorate about his ability to handle foreign affairs.

The original response to the deal in Haiti has been politically positive for the president -- instant polls showing a majority of Americans now approve his handling of Haiti, a sharp reversal of opinion. But politicians know that such polls are extremely volatile because they reflect to a large extent what the respondents have just seen on their television screens, which in this case was celebration at the White House and bloodshed averted. A week from now, after the flaws in the deal have been thoroughly aired and argued, the approval for the president on Haiti almost certainly will diminish.

How the whole thing shakes down politically won't be known for weeks or months. For the president, the most difficult thing is that the outcome of such a hazardous initiative is essentially beyond his control.

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