Alone If We Must Force If We Must

September 27, 1994

President Clinton, standing yesterday before the United Nations as a U.S commander-in-chief in fact as well as name, beefed up his definition of America's willingness to go it alone in fulfilling its mission as world leader.

Last year he told the U.N. General Assembly that "we must not hesitate to act unilaterally when there is a threat to our core interests or those of our allies." This time he was a lot more explicit: "When our national security interests are threatened, we will act with others when we can, but alone if we must. We will use diplomacy when we can, but force if we must."

Note use of two five-letter words -- force and alone. Note the reference to national security interests. Note that in defining those interests he spoke only of the Unites States, not of allies.

Perhaps this is making too much of semantic changes, but with the U.S. occupation of Haiti now splashed with the blood of 10 Haitian police who dared to defy U.S. Marines over the weekend, the president was flexing muscle.

Haiti is a successful mission just so long as things are going well and casualties are strictly on the other side. But, as Mr. Clinton well knows, public and congressional support for the operation is neither deep nor wide. When he said the Haiti involvement shows the U.S. will take the lead in multinational military ventures "when our interests are plain, when the cause is right, when the mission is achievable, when the nations of the world stand with us," his audience must have been skeptically checking off his list.

On every one of these points there can be an argument. The timing of the Clinton speech, however, came at a fortuitous moment. Forces attached to the military junta have yet to retaliate, except verbally, for what Gen. Raoul Cedras has described as the "atrocities" at Cap Haitien. Neither President Jean-Bertrand Aristide nor his exiled parliamentary colleagues have yet to return to the turbulent situation in their homeland. And General Cedras has yet to concede he will leave his country -- quite the contrary.

While the rest of the world seems quite ready to let the U.S. do as it wishes in poor, isolated, insignificant Haiti, other nations wade in when the strategic Balkans are at stake. Mr. Clinton, to his credit, has managed to fend off congressional demands for unilateral U.S. lifting of the arms embargo that has hobbled the ability of the Bosnian Muslims to fight the Bosnian Serbs. But with an Oct. 15 deadline approaching (the same date Mr. Aristide is due back in Haiti), he is finding that not only the British, the French and the Russians are warning that this could expand the war. Similar views are belatedly being heard even from the Muslim side.

All this should serve as a reminder that the Haiti operation could breed trouble if it leads to U.S. unilateralism in places where it cannot be so easily imposed. Haiti is hardly an appropriate occasion for American hubris.

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