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SHOULD U.S. INVADE HAITI? CLINTON'S CASE IS STILL WEAK

President Clinton told the public little it didn't already know Thursday night. Consequently, though his eloquence evidently changed a few minds, the great majority of Americans remain opposed to invading Haiti - and rightly so.

The moral indignation Clinton expressed at the outrages in Haiti was moving and entirely justified. But his basic case was not. In essence, he treated the country to a rehash of arguments so old and faulty that polls still show the invasion is opposed by 60 percent of the public as well as by many members of Congress from both political parties. Even the Pentagon has grave reservations about an invasion that lacks solid public support and does not further U.S. security.But none of that evidently matters to Clinton, who has gone so far toward mobilizing an invasion force that it would be hard for him to back off gracefully.

What, then, is the purported rationale for an invasion?

- The island's military dictatorship is slaughtering the people of Haiti and smothering the potential birth of Haitian democracy in its cradle.

Though the accusation is certainly correct, the same charges could be leveled with just as much justice against a long list of other banana republics - none of which the U.S. would dream of invading.

- These outrages are happening in America's back yard, not in some remote and obscure spot.

Right again. But the Castro regime in neighboring Cuba has been repressive a lot longer than the comparatively new regime of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in Haiti. Yet Washington hasn't been talking about beating up on Havana - at least not since the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

- America's credibility is on the line.

Oh no it isn't. Nor will it be as long as the invasion has not been authorized by Congress - something that Clinton steadfastly refuses to seek, knowing that it likely would be denied.

The only credibility on the line is that of Clinton himself. Even it would not be at stake if Clinton had not insisted on proceeding without solid public and congressional support, then botching the job in other ways. Few, if any, other U.S. chief executives have rattled the saber as long as Clinton has with as little effect.

- An invasion is needed to keep the U.S. from being inundated with a flood of refugees from Haiti.

Nonsense! The recent experience with Cuba shows there are other, non-violent ways of dealing with this kind of problem.

- The invasion would not be an exercise in American gunboat diplomacy, since the U.S.-led force would include contingents from other countries.

But the 20,000 or so U.S. troops would be accompanied by only about 1,500 soldiers from more than 20 other countries. This situation reflects the fact that support for the invasion is broad but shallow. So shallow that this support could quickly disappear if the invasion encounters unexpected difficulties.

- An invasion is necessary to restore the duly-elected but ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide so that the horrible example of the military regime in Haiti won't discourage other Latin American countries from promoting democracy.

But other powerful elements in Haiti besides the military are opposed to Aristide, whose leftist leanings make plenty of Americans nervous, too. The Haitian opposition to Aristide won't automatically dry up just because he is reinstalled by outside force. Consequently, the threat of another coup could remain after the occupying forces leave.

- The Haitian army is so ill-equipped and poorly trained that it can be quickly overcome with little loss of American lives.

Exactly how many lives would that "little loss" involve? Various estimates place the figure at as few as a half-dozen or as many as 100. Such a price - or even a steeper one - would be worth paying if vital American interests were at stake. But, to put it bluntly, Haiti is of no strategic or economic value to the United States.

- After Haiti is "pacified," U.S. and other forces could quickly leave, making way for a United Nations contingent that would remain until Haiti became stabilized and self-governing.

The trouble is that Americans once occupied Haiti for two decades without making much of a dent in the island's persistent social and economic woes. What guarantee is there that this history won't repeat itself under the U.N.'s banner? None whatsoever.

Compounding all these problems is Clinton's refusal to seek congressional approval before undertaking the invasion. With such approval, the White House would have a stronger hand in seeking to persuade the military dictatorship to flee Haiti. Moreover, such support could moderate the political post-mortems that always take place after an intervention.

Likewise, if Clinton sought but failed to get congressional approval, this lack of support from the legislative branch would give him an excuse to abandon the invasion plans without losing more face than he already has.

Meanwhile, nice try, Mr. President, but no sale! Thursday evening's televised performance gets top marks for high ideals. But good intentions are still no substitute for good judgment.