September 30, 1994
Alan W. Dowd
The world is watching America's actions in Haiti. By now, friend and foe alike have noticed a pattern of uncertainty, concession, and weakness in American foreign policy. Tragically, the military operation underway in Haiti is a sign not of an end to this pattern, but of its perpetuation.
Consider the state of America’s credibility after a five-day stretch that saw Mr. Clinton demonize Haiti’s quite detestable dictatorship; outline a strategy to remove it; dispatch three anti-interventionists to negotiate with it; and finally agree to cooperate with it during the early stages of what promises to be a long occupation. If the Haitian dictatorship is in fact all of the things Mr. Clinton accused it of being, the US should not cooperate with it (thereby legitimizing it) and should never have promised amnesty to its members.
Mr. Clinton has played this game of appeasement before. Few Americans realize that one of Mr. Clinton’s first acts as commander-in-chief (the bombing of an Iraqi intelligence facility in retaliation for Baghdad’s primary role in the attempted assassination of former President George Bush) was received with contempt by Saddam Hussein.
The Stalinist dictator of Iraq, who survived in the span of ten years two of this century’s most brutal and costly wars, was unmoved by Mr. Clinton’s "punitive strike," which consisted of 11 Tomahawk cruise missiles and a stern lecture. In the eighteen months since this show of American "strength" Iraq has steadily pushed for the lifting of UN sanctions (to date, Baghdad has won French, Russian, and Chinese support); it has refused to release hundreds of Kuwaiti prisoners of war; it has ignored demands to return stolen Kuwaiti assets; in official pronouncements, Baghdad still defiantly refers to Kuwait as its 19th Province; and Saddam has strengthened and reformed his murderous military machine, unleashing several divisions of it on US-protected "safe havens" in the north and south.
Like Saddam Hussein, Somali tribal leader Farah Aidid paid little attention to Mr. Clinton’s displays of American strength. Washington had put a price on Aidid’s head, dispatching with much media attention hundreds of US Army Rangers to neutralize and eliminate Aidid and his armed followers. Poorly protected and out-gunned, the Rangers nonetheless followed their orders (like their comrades in Haiti) and fought a house-to-house war against Aidid’s forces. The war--Mr. Clinton’s first war--ended in a day-long shootout between 100 of America’s finest soldiers and perhaps twenty times as many Somalis. Nineteen Rangers were lost in this show of force. Within days of the fire-fight, Mr. Clinton called for peace talks with Farah Aidid; ironically, many of the Rangers who survived that battle would be forced to protect Aidid during the peace negotiations. America’s thoughtless intervention in Somalia would end a few months later, with Aidid and his men controlling Somalia.
The Clinton White House vowed to bring a just settlement to the war in Bosnia. The ethnic Serbs who launched and waged that war would be repelled and punished, the President warned. He supported his rhetoric, as he invariably does, with just enough military force to uncover the limits of American might, to accentuate the negative, to highlight what America is unable or unwilling to do: Serb aircraft were shot down, and Bosnian children continued to starve; Serb artillery was confiscated in and around Sarajevo, and Serb militiamen enveloped Gorazde; American and NATO jets bombed Serb positions, and the Serbs held on to 70% of Bosnia. After two years of empty threats and appeasement, Sarajevo is still under siege, Bosnia is still scarred by war, and the Serbs have yet to be repelled.
North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung would be next to test Washington. After withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea expelled international nuclear inspectors and began fortifying its southern border. By the end of 1993, more communist aircraft, armor, artillery, and men lined the demilitarized zone than at any time since the cessation of hostilities. Mr. Clinton promptly ignored a US military commander’s request to strengthen American installations on the peninsula with Patriot missile batteries.
Kim Il-Sung continued to play a shell game with his weapons-grade nuclear material. In response, Mr. Clinton offered not an ultimatum, but financial assistance to Kim. After indefinitely postponing allied military exercises, Mr. Clinton dispatched Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang. The North Koreans finally stepped back from the chasm of war--not because of Mr. Clinton’s determination or Mr. Carter’s statecraft, but because they recognized they no longer needed to go to war to achieve their short-term goals (i.e., securing economic investment and retaining a nuclear arsenal).
With a year of White House back-peddling as a backdrop, China had good reason to believe Mr. Clinton would reverse a principled, defensible, and sustainable policy that linked renewal of Beijing’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to its observance of human rights. The Beijing government--a primary arms supplier to most of Moscow’s old clients, a government that silences and eliminates dissent, a government that killed 5,000 democratic protesters and perhaps China’s entire democratic movement in the process--reminded Washington that the world’s largest market would be exploited by Europe and the rest of Asia, with or without American approval. By overlooking China’s contempt for human rights, Mr. Clinton may have acted in America’s economic interests. But in doing this, he also rewarded a Chinese dictatorship for butchering its own citizens.
In China (through his actions) and Bosnia (through his inaction), Mr. Clinton ultimately decided that the cause of an oppressed or besieged people was too demanding for the United States to support. He chose not to push the North Korean military colossus, and to ignore the vengeful regime in Baghdad--delaying those battles for another day and another administration, when the military machines of Iraq and North Korea are much stronger, and ours much weaker. After a few months of nation-building and urban warfare in Somalia, Mr. Clinton finally reconsidered a mission that exceeded its means--a decision that came too late for nineteen US Army Rangers.
Nearly a fortnight after America’s arrival in Haiti, Mr. Clinton remains committed to the cause of "upholding democracy." And the Haitian dictatorship remains in power. Doubtless, Cedras and his men are testing Mr. Clinton’s resolve, as the Iraqi, North Korean, and Serbian dictatorships did. The riots and protests have begun in Haiti (150,000 are expected to assemble on October 2). The crackle of gunfire echoes in the streets of Port-au-Prince, as it did in Mogadishu. The first American soldier has died. And the world is watching.