A commentator who urges support for a presidential decision to invade Haiti must at least stipulate at the outset that things would not have come to this pass had the Clinton administration shown even modest competence in its handling of the issue.
Instead, it has made nearly every mistake that a team lacking experience and intuition can:Mistake No. 1: Reinventing the wheel. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed by the Haitian military in 1991, over a year before Bill Clinton became president. The Bush administration quite sensibly concluded that the sole United States interest in the matter was preventing a deluge of refugees.
President Clinton, however, quickly succumbed to what might be called "the newcomer syndrome," the notion that his predecessor lacked both the moral insight and diplomatic skill to "get it right."
Mistake No. 2: Insisting on Aristide's return. Yes, Aristide was democratically elected. So was Hitler. There is no U.S. interest in having him in the seat of power.
Mistake No. 3: Buckling in a crisis. Having secured in the Governors Island Accord the junta's consent to Aristide's return plus some modest U.S. military assistance, Clinton ordered the warship Harlan County to turn back when a handful of military thugs demonstrated on the docks of Port-au-Prince against the arriving U.S. forces.
Mistake No. 4: Ignoring intelligence. U.S. intelligence informed Clinton in advance that the imposition of economic sanctions would enrich the Haitian military, devastate those it was trying to help and generate additional refugees while putting little pressure on the military to step down.
Mistake No. 5: A lack of national leadership. Each morning, the United States awakes to ask, "Who will be making the administration's Haiti policy du jour?"
Mistake No. 6: Painting oneself into a corner. Having stated so often that the Haitian military must step down and Aristide must return, the administration must now bring those results about or both it and the United States will suffer a stinging loss of credibility.
Thus, with no national consensus and with his own administration deeply divided, Clinton has gone to the United Nations seeking its final pre-invasion nod.
Sadly, putting soldiers at risk to erase presidential blunders is as American as apple pie. American soldiers died in Panama because George Bush neglected to pick up Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega when coup leaders had him in their hands three months earlier.
What, beyond U.S. credibility in its own back yard, was at stake in a Panama invasion that was far more costly in both U.S. and Panamanian lives than Haiti will ever be?
More than national chauvinism rides on the back of that credibility. In a part of the world where democracy is perpetually under siege a United States whose word is credible can be a force for considerable good.
At this point, the greatest possible harm to the national interest would be the collapse of the U.S. position on Haiti. That being the case, Clinton should get the support he needs, rather than the support he deserves.