Haiti Bargain a Risk for Clinton

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton faced two unpalatable alternatives in his showdown with Haiti's military rulers Sunday: launch an unpopular war that he wanted desperately to avoid, or accept a potentially messy compromise with men he has denounced as tyrants and thugs.


As he has before in his career, Clinton chose compromise.


His pragmatic choice spared 20,000 U.S. troops the risk of fighting their way into Haiti, and spared the president the burden of explaining a war that almost no one wanted.


"This agreement ... minimizes the risks for American forces," Clinton emphasized, bowing to the nation's post-Cold War resistance to military hazards.


But, like most compromises, it came with risks of its own: the risk that the deal will break down, that Haiti's wily generals will use the next four weeks to find a way to stay, or that U.S. troops will find themselves patrolling battle zones in an underground guerrilla war.


Clinton and his aides want Haiti to be another Grenada, where the 1983 landing of U.S. troops produced calm within days. But they fear it could be another Somalia, where U.S. troops sought to bring peace but instead became targets.


That is why there were no broad smiles of triumph among the president and his advisers Sunday night.


Instead, officials seemed relieved but wary -- relieved that they were not sending young Americans into battle but worried about the tricky steps to come.


They were nervous, too, about how the deal would look, asking reporters whether it would look like a waffle for the president -- who last week told the Haitians, "Your time is up" -- to grant them four more weeks of grace Sunday.


In effect, Clinton and his aides are counting on the American public welcoming any solution that avoids war while appearing to meet the United States' main policy objectives.


At the same time, they have quietly redefined those goals downward, dropping their earlier insistence that the recalcitrant Haitian military leader, Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras, should move "as far away (from Haiti) as possible."


Now Cedras, who wants to stay in Haiti and run for president in 1995, can at least test the idea, even if it proves impractical, as U.S. officials predict.


Indeed, the U.S. forces that began landing on the island Monday will depend explicitly on Cedras' cooperation for their success. One of the first tasks of the commander of the U.S. expeditionary force, Lieutenant General Henry Hugh Shelton, will be an official call on Cedras.


In recent weeks, as the showdown neared, U.S. officials focused increasingly on making sure that the American troops' entry is orderly, not chaotic. And that, officials say, meant working with the generals to bring about an orderly transition.


"The goals of our Haiti policy were to achieve democracy and restore President Aristide," Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, adding, perhaps prematurely, "We achieved the goals of our policy."


But, as Christopher acknowledged, there are several steps yet to go before Haiti sees either democracy or Aristide, who will remain in exile in Washington until Cedras steps down.


The U.S. forces must land. The Haitian armed forces must quietly submit to their tutelage. The paramilitary thugs who have terrorized the poor of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, and other towns must melt away. The fractious Haitian parliament must pass an amnesty for Cedras and his chief of staff, Brigadier General Philippe Biamby, and Cedras and Biamby must keep their promise to step down by Oct. 15.