Presidential Drift

Clinton's Haiti policy has no anchor.


President Clinton's foreign policy is as much at sea as the Haitian refugees it now deigns to protect. Without a coherent, defensible set of principles governing international relations, the Clinton administration must make decisions on an ad-hoc basis, predisposing it toward actions based less on reasoned analysis than momentary political pressures. The result is a jerry-rigged policy virtually ensuring the worst possible outcomes for Haiti and the United States alike.

The great consistency in Clinton's Haiti policy has been its inconsistency. During the 1992 campaign, he excoriated George Bush's policy of returning Haitian refugees as "cruel" and "immoral." Within weeks of occupying the Oval Office, however, Clinton embraced Bush's policy, fearing the political fallout from increasing numbers of refugees.

This past May things changed once again. Faced with a high-profile hunger strike by lobbyist Randall Robinson and the arrests of several protesting members of Congress, Clinton reconverted to his original position. Citing "Haiti's declining human rights situation," Clinton announced that refugees would now be given asylum hearings on U.S. ships before being sent back to Haiti.

But even as Clinton was staking out the moral high ground, his administration was asserting that the policy shift was essentially meaningless. "About 95 percent of the people coming in are not political refugees," said Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel Berger. "I don't think the numbers are going to be overwhelming."

Given Berger's comments, one wonders why the administration took so long to reverse its policy when a more humane and politically saleable alternative existed. Especially in light of Clinton' s campaign statements, the slow pace of change appears both morally and politically incomprehensible. The picture that emerges is of a leader who, even in adopting what Robert Novak calls a "new U.S. get-tough policy," is actually following the path of least resistance.

Other aspects of the administration's Haiti policy bear this out. Clinton has insisted that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide be reseated and that the United States "restore democracy" in Haiti, positions that play well in the abstract. But when the messy contingencies of the real world intervene—as they did last October, when U.S. military trainers attempting to land in Haiti met with resistance—the Clinton administration does the politically expedient thing and reverses course.

Similarly, the new United Nations sanctions, which Berger calls "the toughest sanctions ever imposed in this hemisphere," are little more than a cheap public-relations ploy. It is highly unlikely they will drive out the ruling junta. The administration acknowledges that Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic will remain porous, effectively undercutting any attempt at a boycott. An official of a private relief agency told the Los Angeles Times, "The people the embargo is supposed to drive out of power are already getting rich and will get even richer because they now control the import of the food exempted by the sanctions."

The real question, then, is what the United States will do once the sanctions are judged a failure. Haiti's military has upped the ante by officially replacing Aristide and making moves toward ordering the U.N. Civil Mission out of the country. The momentum is shifting toward using force—an option Clinton has pointedly not ruled out—to accomplish what economic isolation could not. As Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has observed, "U.S. Presidents can tolerate only so much defiance from tinpot strongmen before they send in the marines."

But in the absence of a compelling, coherent national interest (and it is unlikely the Clinton administration will be able to devise one), the support for any military action will be capricious. The Haitian military, in fact, seems to be banking on such a scenario. A senior officer told Time "lt'd be just like Somalia. Clinton will run away when the first U.S. soldier is returned in a body bag."

Instead of stumbling along a path likely to lead to more extreme conditions in Haiti and the deaths of American soldiers, the Clinton administration should pursue a less reactionary policy. The White House would better serve the interests of Haitians and Americans by expanding its latest refugee policy and resisting the call to solve Haiti' s problems by immiserating its people or invading its shores.