President Clinton warned Haiti’s military leaders Tuesday that his patience “has run out” and he no longer will rule out the use of U.S. military force to drive them from power.
In a day of saber-rattling apparently intended to increase pressure on the Haitian regime, White House officials told reporters that Clinton is willing to consider a U.S. attack to topple the junta if stepped-up economic sanctions fail to do the job.
No military action has been approved or planned, aides added. But even their guarded talk of military action as a possible option caused alarm among some in Congress and in the Pentagon.
“We are doing our best to avoid dealing with the military option,” Clinton said in an appearance at a televised conference here sponsored by Cable News Network. “We have not decided to use force--all I am saying is, we cannot afford to rule it out any longer.”
Asked whether his patience with the stalemate in Haiti had run out, the President replied, “It has run out--and maybe we have let it run on a little too long.”
Earlier, a White House official underscored the shift in the U.S. posture, saying, “What has changed is . . . our willingness to put it (military action) in the option category where we weren’t talking about it before.”
The reaction in Congress and the Pentagon was sharp. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), usually a stalwart presidential ally, quickly said military action in Haiti would be “neither wise nor prudent.”
At the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary William J. Perry publicly has dismissed the idea of military intervention in Haiti, a senior officer called it “stupid.”
White House officials spent much of the day scrambling to squelch reports that Clinton was planning an immediate military move--while still seeking to convey the more subtle message that the President might consider such action later. “The President hasn’t made a decision. It doesn’t mean planning has been stepped up. He has not threatened military action,” one official said.
At a closed briefing for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger said the Administration hopes that new sanctions against Haiti will compel the military regime to give up power.
“They outlined a series of options to us,” said Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the committee’s chairman. “Nothing has been ruled out, but no plans have been made for the use of force as of now.”
Haiti’s military seized power in 1991, overthrowing the island republic’s first elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who now lives in exile in Washington.
After abortive attempts to negotiate a compromise between Aristide and the military, a wave of gruesome murders of Aristide supporters in Haiti and increasing complaints from liberal Democrats in Congress, Clinton has returned to a policy of increasing pressure on the regime in Port-au-Prince.
In the short term, the policy focuses on a proposal for a total trade embargo presented to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.
“The people now in charge of Haiti have thwarted democracy,” Clinton said in his appearance on CNN, “and it is wrong and we’ve go to do something about it.”
But Administration aides acknowledged that the trade embargo may not force the military regime from power and that they are looking for other means to increase the pressure. “Diplomacy clearly is not working,” one aide complained.
Addressing the prospect of military action in Haiti, Clinton said, “We have intervened in the past; it hasn’t worked out very well.” He added, “But this is an unusual and in some ways unprecedented circumstance.”
Pentagon officials said contingency plans have been prepared for several possible military actions in Haiti. But they described them as normal planning exercises.
One plan envisions deploying a brigade of light infantry troops to Haiti to take over the island, much as U.S. forces invaded Grenada and Panama in the 1980s. Such an operation could involve Army paratroopers and Marines--either taking off by helicopter from Navy aircraft carriers or making an amphibious landing of their own--backed by tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.
Military analysts said there is little doubt that even a modest-size U.S. force could easily defeat the tiny, poorly equipped Haitian army, which numbers about 7,000 troops, has no tanks and commands only a handful of Bradley fighting vehicles and guns. But they said the United States could risk serious casualties if a substantial part of Haiti’s civilian population opposed U.S. troops by waging guerrilla warfare or house-to-house fighting.
The Pentagon has long opposed any new military action in Haiti. Perry told The Times earlier this week that he feared that U.S. military action in Haiti could leave the United States embroiled there for months. “After we’ve done that, what is Act II?” he asked. “Could we . . . stabilize the situation there and . . . reinstall democratic government?”
Administration officials said Clinton and aides have considered reviving an earlier plan to send U.S. military trainers to Haiti. But they called that a separate issue from the military intervention option. The trainers would go to Haiti only if the military regime quit or opted for a compromise that would invite Americans in peacefully, officials said. “You wouldn’t send them (trainers) to fight their way in,” one official said.
A Navy amphibious landing ship, the Harlan County, tried to land U.S. military engineers in Haiti last year but turned back after pro-regime thugs gathered on the dock and threatened to kill them.
At the United Nations, Ambassador Madeleine Albright introduced a Security Council resolution that she said would put “a sanctions noose around the Haitian military.” It would clamp a total trade embargo on Haiti--except for food and medicine--and would authorize any U.N. member to set up a naval blockade to inspect ships coming into and out of Haiti.
The resolution would ban all travel out of the country by Haitian military and police officers and their families. Governments would be asked to freeze all international financial holdings of these Haitians. All planes would be prohibited from landing and taking off from Haiti unless they were regularly scheduled commercial airliners.
Richter reported from Atlanta and McManus from Washington. Times staff writers Michael Ross in Washington and Stanley Meisler at the United Nations contributed to this report.