A question of power

September 26, 1994|By Anthony Lewis

FROM RIGHT and left, the Haiti operation is under attack. President Clinton did too little. He did too much. And so on and on.

Underneath, what is involved here is a question of the greatest importance to the United States, and to the presidency, at this moment in history. That is how a great country and its leader use power.

In power terms, Mr. Clinton's handling of the Haiti problem in the months before the past week's activities was surely flawed. He allowed a gang of butchers who ran a tiny country to make fools of a superpower and its leader, breaking their promises and mocking our military. He did nothing to rally the public and congressional support that in our constitutional system is crucial to a president's use of force.

But when the president decided he must act, the equation changed. Whatever the past, he was asserting American power; the question is how effectively he did and will do so.

One criticism heard is that he should not have let former President Carter go to Haiti with his peace mission -- or should have rejected the terms negotiated with Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and ordered U.S. forces to go ahead and invade.

As to Mr. Carter, he was determined to go to Haiti and talk with Mr. Cedras no matter what. His comments since returning from Haiti make clear that he did not agree with U.S. policy toward the Cedras regime -- and was quite ready to depart from it.

Bill Clinton knew what a loose cannon Mr. Carter was. Was the president wrong, then -- or wishy-washy, as the critics say -- to let the Carter mission proceed?

The answer is that a chance to save lives was worth taking. Moreover, Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn, two careful men, were added to the mission as safeguards. My information is that their inclusion was not Mr. Carter's idea but Mr. Clinton's.

"Colin Powell was the star," a high-ranking policy-maker said afterward. He persuaded Cedras to make the deal.

Then he argued to Clinton that the terms should be accepted, even though they left Cedras in Haiti, because they would get U.S. troops on the ground without a fight -- and once 15,000 Americans were there, they would call the tune. According to a participant, he told the president on the telephone:

"Who cares about the fuzziness in the terms? In five days, Mr. President, we will be in charge."

If Bill Clinton had rejected the agreement and sent U.S. forces into an opposed landing, as some critics urged, lives would have been lost. Would the critics want to be in the position of having to justify those deaths because of the issue of Mr. Cedras's departure?

But the validity of the argument that getting U.S. forces safely on the ground was the essential thing depends on how that power '' is used.

The Clinton administration's first performance was not encouraging. It let U.S. troops stand by, doing nothing, while Haitian policemen beat up crowds demonstrating in favor of the occupation, beating one man to death.

To make it worse, administration officials and the president himself refused at first to condemn the outrage. Only the next day did they do what the most modest level of common sense demanded: tell Mr. Cedras that such brutality would not be tolerated -- that the game was up. They ordered American military policemen in jeeps to trail Haitian security units.

It is going to be an extremely delicate operation. For now, at least, Americans will work with the Haitian military, but they will not want to be seen as allies of the brutes who have savaged the people of Haiti since the overthrow of President Aristide -- and for generations before.

Mr. Cedras and the tiny elite who have controlled Haiti are positioning themselves now to undermine Mr. Aristide if and when he does return. If the American operation is to have any point at all, it will have to frustrate that design -- yet do so without taking over the governing of Haiti.

It is an extremely tricky assignment, the more difficult because most Americans are skeptical of the whole enterprise. Indeed, today, many have essentially turned isolationist, opposing any use of U.S. force abroad. That is why the Haiti operation, however we got into it, is a vital test of whether American power can still be exercised effectively.

Anthony Lewis is a syndicated columnist.

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