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HAS CLINTON BOXED HIMSELF INTO CORNER?

The young man who squirmed out of military service, the politician who preached negotiation and compromise, the president who cast his mission in domestic economic terms, now stands instead on the brink of becoming a war president.

Leading the nation into Haiti as the First Warrior may seem the supreme irony for Bill Clinton, who exemplifies both his generation's alienation from the military and its continuing struggle to master a messy and unruly post-Cold War world.The long slide toward a U.S. military confrontation with Haiti's thuggish rulers has been a route paved with good intentions, missed opportunities, misread signals and events beyond anyone's control.

But as Clinton stands poised to command his first military expedition, there is a widespread view that unleashing U.S. military power on Haiti is the wrong action, at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

And many believe Clinton has reached this point largely because of his own distance from the military and his administration's unfamiliarity with the use of power and force.

"This is one of those cases where the two sides are not talking to one another, not using the imagination of statesmen, and being driven incalculably to something that neither of them really wants," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Fordand Richard Nixon.

Clinton's lack of direct or indirect military experience leaves him "not understanding what the military can do, and not understanding what the military cannot do," said Frank Gaffney, who was a senior Pentagon strategist during the Reagan administration.

Particularly critical, Gaffney said, is Clinton's "misunderstanding of the very limited role the military can play in quasi-military situations such as Haiti and Somalia and the very high costs of those involvements."

Gaffney and others point out, for instance, that the Clinton administration began talking last spring about using force to return ousted Haitian President Jean-Ber-trand Aristide to power, well before there was a coherent military plan for an invasion.

Another critical error, analysts say, has been Clinton's failure until the last minute to make a compelling case for an invasion to the American public.

"He has violated one of the 20th century's cardinal rules for committing force, which is, don't do it unless the people approve," said George Sullivan, a decorated retired Army airborne commander.

Sullivan, reflecting the views of many in the military community, said Clinton also has fundamentally misunderstood the role of the military in today's world.

"As many others have pointed out, if we were to intervene everywhere there is a despotic dictator and an overthrown `democratic' government, a third of the male population of the United States would be under arms serving overseas," Sullivan said. "There is just no reason to do this," he added, referring to an invasion of Haiti.

"The problem isn't only that Clinton never served in the military but that he is lacking anything remotely resembling a strategy," said Daniel Nelson, director of foreign policy studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

"If democracy is so important, why (use force in) Haiti and not Bosnia or even Cuba? The answer is that the administration has chosen the soft, easy target, one where if the operation succeeds, the domestic political gain is maximal," Nelson said.

"Somebody's going to get hurt, and then what do you tell their families - are you going to talk about political expediency? It just makes you want to cry."

Critics say Clinton has been hampered in his handling of the Haiti crisis by a lack of seasoned advisers. None of his top civilian aides has military experience. And his top military adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili, is generally regarded as having far less political savvy and clout than his predecessor, Gen. Colin Powell.

"I think that's been a large part of the problem," said Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who directs the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute in Washington.

When Clinton chose Shalikashvili last year to replace Powell, Bacevich said, "I think they took somebody who would not be an independent figure and therefore would not be a competing source of power as clearly Powell was."

Powell, Bacevich recalled, vigorously and successfully fought Clinton's proposals to put gays in the military and to dispatch American ground forces to Bosnia. Such a strong voice in an administration otherwise devoid of military experience, said Bacevich, "greatly complicated life for the administration."

"But I want to speak up in defense of the baby boomer generation," Bacevich added. "It is not simply the younger, liberal Democrats who are struggling unsuccessfully with the problem of what our grand strategy ought to be. Everybody's struggling with it. Nobody has the answers."

Nevertheless, Clinton's history of antipathy to the military is a strong element in the country's currently skeptical mood.

"It's an absolutely delicious irony that Clinton finds himself relying on the military - the very organization for which he has expressed so much contempt," said Sullivan.

Air Force Lt. Col. Charles J. Dunlap, writing recently in an academic journal, observed:

"Perceived as improperly avoiding military service during the Vietnam War, the president also is viewed by many within and outside the military community as loathing the very concept of military service."

Despite these views of the commander in chief, no one doubts the willingness of the military - and perhaps the public as well - to close ranks once an invasion is under way.

"Soldiers will do their jobs," said Sullivan, who won the nation's second-highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism in Vietnam. "They always do."