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HAITI’S DEFIANCE RAISES BIG QUESTION: WILL AMERICANS LAUNCH AN INVASION?

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When the United Nations' total trade embargo against Haiti clicks into effect at midnight tonight, President Clinton will have just one remaining option for ousting the island's dictators if they remain defiant: invasion.

As the deadline for the generals' departure approaches, there is no sign that they will buckle under the latest ultimatum to step down or that increased economic punishment will eventually force them out."I think the embargo is not going to work, and we will see that very soon," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "That means the president has only the military option left."

Andy Bacevich, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, said: "I would bet the Haitian military would hang on and we will intervene.

"It seems to me the military is not particularly moved by any amount of suffering on the part of the population, and the regime, the elites, are able to establish a buffer so they are really protected from the worst impact of sanctions."

The trade embargo is the latest U.S.-led effort to return to power Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti who was overthrown by the forces of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in September 1991 and now lives in exile in the United States.

The Clinton administration has refused to rule out military action, but there is little enthusiasm for it in the Pentagon. The feeling in the Pentagon is it would be easier to enter than exit the island. The last time the U.S. military went into Haiti, in 1915, it did not leave until 1934.

"It is not the entry strategy that is the issue," said a Pentagon officer who asked not to be identified. "It is the exit strategy. What are we out to accomplish? What is our timetable for completing it?"

The ragtag Haitian army poses little serious military challenge. Only about 1,600 of its 7,600 troops are regarded as remotely combat-ready. They have had no outside training since the departure of Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986, and their weapons, when they work, are mostly of World War II-vintage. They have no anti-aircraft weapons or missiles and only two trainer planes.

"They would not be capable of mounting any kind of a resistance against an organized and equipped military," said the Pentagon officer. The most serious problems would arise, she said, after the military was removed.

"You are going to have to do some fairly significant nation building," said the officer. "You would have the potential for mob violence. You would have the potential for some terrorist attacks."

In weighing the military option, the quandary for Clinton is: Should he restore Aristide and then stand by him as he tries to pacify an unruly nation and restore a collapsed economy; or should he return Aristide to power and then leave him to his own devices to rule the hemisphere's poorest nation?

Should he decide to order the troops in, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with 650 heavily armed Marines aboard, will be on hand. It is sailing from Norfolk, Va., to the Caribbean for eight weeks of training operations. It is the designated command ship for the U.N. blockade, known as Operation Support Democracy, and it carries Rear Adm. John J. Mazack, who would command any military action against the island.

But for critics of Clinton's foreign policy, the defiance of Haiti has come to symbolize what they perceive as the administration's lack of conviction.