The Clinton administration said Friday the U.S. invasion of Haiti could come within days and when it does, the military mission would be over "in a matter of hours." There were hints that Haiti's leaders had made an overture toward a peaceful exile.
President Clinton told Americans in a televised address Thursday night, "We have exhausted diplomacy," and he put Haiti's rulers on notice that a massive deployment of U.S. troops was ready to remove them by force.Overnight polls and morning interviews indicated that many Americans and members of Congress were opposed to military intervention and unconvinced that the situation in Haiti threatened U.S. interests. Clinton laid out his reasoning and said he'd made up his mind.
"When brutality occurs close to our shores, it affects our national interests."
Clinton signaled that an invasion could come at any time and has authorized the call-up of 1,600 reservists to support the 20,000-strong invasion force.
One high-ranking official said, however, an invasion was not likely before Monday, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher told ABC Friday, "It's a matter of days. It's a very short time"
Christopher also suggested that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide would not return immediately. "It would be a short time. I would say a week or two, it depends on the security situation there," he said.
Defense Secretary William Perry, interviewed on NBC, said the U.S. invasion would be overwhelming and fast. "The military aspect of this would be over in a matter of hours, at most a day or two," he said, adding that U.S. soldiers would stay longer, "restoring order and establishing security on the island."
Perry also suggested the invasion would not turn into a manhunt for Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and the other military leaders, as happened in Panama when Manuel Noriega was taken prisoner only after he disappeared for several days and then holed up in a church residence surrounded by U.S. soldiers.
"Our military task is simply to separate the leadership from the military forces . . . we do not have any orders or directions to track down those leaders," Perry said. "If, in the course of our military operations we come across them, we will arrest them," he added.
Even as two U.S. aircraft carriers moved to join 20 warships off Haiti's shores, Cedras stood firm.
In a CBS interview after Clinton's speech, Cedras said he was "prepared to fight with my people."
Nevertheless, Cedras and his colleagues were putting out feelers for a way out of their dilemma, according to former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga. Seaga told The Associated Press Thursday night that he was contacted Tuesday by a well-placed Haitian intermediary close to Cedras.
The intermediary said the junta leaders were offering to step down and allow the return of Aristide "if there was an agreement not to proceed with the invasion" and a pledge of no retribution against some 600 people associated with the Haitian regime, Seaga said.
He passed the proposal to U.S. Embassy charge d'affaires Lacy Wright in Kingston for relay to Washington, but said he had no reply following a series of conversations to clarify different points.
In his address, Clinton forcefully portrayed Haiti as a critical U.S. interest, worthy of risking American lives in an invasion. But he promised the American mission would be short-lived.
"The vast majority of our troops will come home in months, not years," he said.
An ABC poll after Clinton's speech indicated that he had won over some support, with 60 percent opposed to an invasion, compared with 73 percent four days earlier. Republican lawmakers are strongly opposed to military action, and many Democrats are insisting he should seek a con-gres-sional vote of approval for invasion.
A leading critic of Clinton's Haiti policy, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said today that the president's speech did not change his mind, "except that I think that the president, as always, gave a very excellent speech, and I think it's very natural and normal for the American people to rally behind the president."
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, called Clinton's decision "a serious, serious mistake."
"I remain firm in my belief that the president has a clear constitutional responsibility to obtain congressional approval before entering this course of action," Bennett said in a statement. "By refusing to gain congressional support, President Clinton has taken full responsibility upon himself for any outcome that may result from this action."
Clinton sought to dispel doubts and suspicions about Aristide, which have contributed to opposition in Congress and reticence in some quarters of the administration.
He said Aristide, ousted in a military coup in September 1991, has pledged to step down when his term expires in February 1996.
Clearly pointing to concerns that Aristide would not dissuade retribution by his supporters, Clinton said the Roman Catholic priest-turned-politician has "committed himself to promote reconciliation among all Haitians."
The administration is concerned about the prospect of Haitian-on-Haitian violence after the coup is toppled, and U.S. planning has incorporated efforts to thwart such activity, said a congressional source who has been briefed by officials.
Cedras himself predicted in the CBS interview that if the invasion goes forward, "First you will have the resistance of the people and then you will have a massacre, starting with a civil war."