'Model' peacekeeping experience in Haiti bodes ill for similar task in the Balkans Caribbean nation lapsing into turmoil seen before U.S. military intervention

November 28, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton seeks public and congressional support for sending U.S. troops into Bosnia, a military mission that administration officials point to as a model -- Haiti -- is starting to unravel.

A year after 20,000 U.S. troops staged a bloodless invasion to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the impoverished Caribbean nation is experiencing renewed political violence, a surge of refugees and a slowdown of its economic reforms. Some observers fear increased violence if United Nations peacekeepers withdraw on schedule in February.

This "turbulence," as the State Department calls it, underscores the difficulties of trying to suppress deep-seated political problems even with a massive show of force, abundant international goodwill and large amounts of economic aid.

It couldn't come at a more inconvenient time for Mr. Clinton, who is planning to send precisely the same number of troops onto more violent terrain -- this time in the Balkans -- despite strong misgivings on Capitol Hill and among the American people.

Previous success

Only a few months ago, Haiti added luster to the administration's foreign policy record.

Under threat of U.S. military force, Haiti's ruling junta relinquished power peacefully in September 1994 and left the country. U.S. troops arrived to a joyous welcome and established order without a single U.S. combat casualty. Mr. Aristide dropped his firebrand rhetoric in favor of pledges of reconciliation. U.S. troops handed over the mission to a U.N. force last spring.

Mr. Clinton's foreign policy team felt confident enough about Haiti to cite it as an example of something that went reassuringly right.

In an interview broadcast on National Public Radio on Sept. 22, Anthony Lake, the White House national security adviser, said that Haiti would serve as an example in planning the NATO mission in Bosnia.

"Here there is, I think, a kind of a model in Haiti, where we went in with a strong force that could take care of itself, make it clear that we could act effectively and protect ourselves, and then we have the clear end-point and a gradual drawdown to it."

In a television interview on Sunday, Mr. Lake again cited Haiti as a positive example, saying that the muscular rules governing whether and how U.S. forces may engage in combat in Bosnia "will be very similar to the rules in Haiti."

By then, however, the situation in Haiti had already deteriorated.

First, earlier this year, came the Aristide government's backsliding on economic reforms. Its refusal to sell off state-owned firms as promised led to the resignation of Prime Minister Smarck Michel -- a favorite of the United States and foreign investors -- and suspension of $4.6 million in U.S. aid.

Violence, rhetoric intensifies

Then, in recent months, came a rise in political violence and a change in Mr. Aristide's rhetoric. Earlier this month, mourning the death of a relative slain by political opponents, the president urged the populace to help Haitian police disarm people in "neighborhoods where there are big houses and heavy weapons," a reference to the conservative, wealthy Haitian elite.

Last week, Mr. Aristide alarmed administration officials when he seemed to waiver on fulfilling his commitment to hold democratic elections in mid-December and allow a new president to take office in February. In an interview reported yesterday, however, Mr. Aristide reaffirmed his plans to leave office.

A key reason for last year's intervention was to halt the flood of refugees bound for Florida. That crisis eased, but in the past week there has been an upsurge in the number of Haitian "boat people." Coast Guard officials said at least three vessels transporting 1,102 Haitians had left for the United States last week from the northwestern town of Port-de-Paix.

A vessel carrying 47 passengers was reported to have capsized in choppy waters off the northwestern coast Saturday, according to the independent station, Radio Metropole.

Timetable unchanged

Clinton administration officials insist that despite these problems Haiti is, as one put it, "vastly better than it was 15 months or 15 years ago." They also maintain that the United Nations must stick to its timetable for withdrawal.

"It's important that these deadlines and timetables be adhered to when they reasonably can be," a senior official said.

Withdrawal, however, will produce "a lot of bumps in the road," according to Robert Maguire, a coordinator of the Johns Hopkins-Georgetown Haiti Project. Referring to the old elite, he said, "Things could get difficult, particularly if those accustomed to holding power continue to resist and undermine change."

At a minimum, Haiti has moved out of the success column. In fact, it is now being compared by some Republicans to Somalia, a foreign policy debacle for the Clinton administration.

One Senate GOP staff member sneered that in the approaching congressional debate on Bosnia, the question could be put this way: "Are you going to trust the administration that brought you Somalia and Haiti?"

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