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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Carter Brokers Peace In 11th Hour Accord

WASHINGTON -- Dusk was gathering in Port-au-Prince as retired General Colin L. Powell picked up the secure telephone line kept open for the U.S. negotiating team from the Haitian military headquarters to the White House.


On the other end of the line, General John M. Shalikashvili, Powell's successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sounded an urgent warning: Wrap this thing up and get out of there. The operation is on a very tight schedule, and it is not going to wait, Shalikashvili said.


Senior administration officials, who declined to be identified, outlined the tense Sunday scenario as war between the United States and Haiti hung in the balance.


At about 1 P.M. Sunday in Washington (9 P.M. in Moscow), Defense Secretary William J. Perry had walked into the Oval Office with a message from the Pentagon command center: If the invasion was to take place Sunday night, as scheduled, the paratroopers who were to be its spearhead had to start loading into their planes at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.


President Bill Clinton, uncertain if former President Jimmy Carter, Powell and Senator Sam Nunn would be able to get a deal on their mission to Haiti, decided not to wait.


"Pack 'em," he told Perry.


In the hours after that decision, as the afternoon wore on with no agreement in sight, tensions rose.


Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, and William Gray III, the president's special envoy to Haiti, both developed agonizing toothaches. Lake rushed off to the dentist.


In Port-au-Prince, followers of the military government were surrounding the site of the talks. In the White House Oval Office, Clinton and his advisers were growing increasingly concerned both that the talks would break down and that Carter's determination to "grind it out," as one senior official put it, could put the delegation in harm's way.


The first urgent warnings went out to Carter and the rest of his team about 5 P.M. Clinton and his senior foreign policy advisers, who kept in constant contact with the team from the White House, wanted the group to leave Haiti so the invasion could commence.


"We were telling them, 'You've got to get out of there now. If you don't have it, get out. Give up,'" said one of the officials involved.


Carter refused. He kept pushing for more time, prodding Cedras along. The planes took to the air at 6:47 P.M., heightening the tension.


The impasse appeared to break after Cedras' second-in-command, Brigadier General Phillipe Biamby, walked into Cedras' office with a cellular phone and said U.S. planes were on the way.


"I am absolutely convinced that being aware of the preparations of such an overwhelming force, made him blink," Shalikashvili said.


The military leaders agreed to Clinton's sticking point, an Oct. 15 departure deadline, and Carter then called Clinton. Although obviously relieved, the president did not jump at the deal right away.


Aides said he told Carter he wanted to "walk around on it," and take a close look at the pact's language.


Some of Clinton's advisers were concerned since much of the agreement was vague. The pledge that the Haitian generals would resign, for example, did not even mention their names, referring only to "certain military officers of the Haitian armed forces."


Don't worry, Powell argued. "Let's not get too hung up on the refinements of this. Once you've got 15,000 troops down here, the dynamics of this place are going to change dramatically," an official recalls Powell saying. "That's your assurance."


Clinton finally approved the deal, and recalled the planes 73 minutes into their flight and still more than an hour away from Haiti. Aides said, however, the invasion would not have taken place until Carter's team was out of the country.


But for several hours, Clinton played a risky game of diplomatic brinksmanship, at once making war and talking peace.