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Why Vietnam-Era ‘Doves’ Want to Invade Haiti

<i> Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations</i>

The debate over U.S. policy toward Haiti is heavily laden with historical irony. Like most liberals who came of age during the Vietnam era, National Security Adviser W. An thony Lake, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and most other senior officials in the Clinton Administration who favor an invasion were vehement opponents of military intervention in the Third World. And, if the Administration does send in the Marines, its harshest critics will include many Republicans who ardently backed the U.S. role in Vietnam, as well as the more recent interventions in Grenada and Panama.

There is also a contemporary irony. The potentially divisive effects of the exodus of Haitians--and now Cubans--on domestic politics are increasingly driving foreign policy, a development that Lake and Talbott would surely resist. Yet, the political anxieties have given added weight to their solution--invasion.

Lake and Talbott are both heirs of the Wilsonian tradition of liberal internationalism and grandsons of the generation of “wise men"--such as John J. McCloy, Dean Acheson and W. Averill Harriman--who guided the United States, in the 1940s, into the uncharted seas of world leadership. But both rebelled against their elders over the Vietnam War: Lake as a Foreign Service officer serving on the staff of then-National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, and Talbott as a student at Yale and Oxford, where he roomed with young Bill Clinton.

In opposing the war, neither Lake nor Talbott rejected the idea that the United States had a unique responsibility to lead the world. Quite the contrary. Their opposition flowed from a belief that Washington was betraying national values and undermining the country’s ability to lead when it subverted governments and aided corrupt dictators.

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Conservatives, by contrast, were never much interested in questions of morality and global responsibility. They saw military intervention in Vietnam as a legitimate exercise of national sovereignty. For them, the overriding issue was always “American” interests and the threat to them posed by communism. They were internationalists out of necessity, not conviction.

It may be unfair, then, to chastise the Administration’s “hawk” converts on Haiti. For Lake, Talbott and other neo-Wilsonians, the end of the Cold War frees the United States to return to its task of making the world safe for democracy. Geopolitics no longer forces us to intervene on the “wrong” side in Third World struggles. Instead, we can use power to promote change in places like Haiti.

There is also a more subtle dimension to the role reversals. During the past two decades, liberals who opposed the Vietnam War, and interventionism in general, were politically mauled by neo-conservatives for their reputed unwillingness to stand up to communism and use force. Lake and many other Administration officials still bear the scars of those political attacks.

The stakes in Haiti are thus doubly high for the Administration’s liberal internationalists. In their judgment, a failure to stand up to the Haitian thugs would undermine America’s ability to promote democracy and reinforce Republican charges that Democrats are not tough enough to conduct an effective foreign policy. But they may be trapped in a no-win situation.

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There is a possibility that an invasion could be carried out successfully with a minimum of casualties. But the post-invasion challenge of transforming Haiti into a viable democracy would be immense. At a minimum, it would require a tremendous infusion of assistance.

Even under the best possible circumstances, it is highly doubtful that a U.S. invasion would be popular at home. Americans almost certainly share the conservatives’ doubts that U.S. interests are engaged in Haiti. A strong case could be made that taxpayer dollars would be squandered to appease the Congressional Black Caucus and protect the Administration’s political interests in Florida.

If an invasion proved difficult and costly, and American lives were lost, the consequences would be calamitous. The perception that Bill Clinton and Talbott, who sat out the Vietnam War at Yale and Oxford, were putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk for dubious reasons would be political dynamite certain to be detonated by Republicans.

The Administration would thus be wise to step back from the brink. Clinton should convert the crisis in Haiti into an opportunity to level with the American people and begin to develop policies that will allow us to end the self-defeating battle between liberal internationalism and conservative nationalism.

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A first step would be to outline why U.S. military intervention is a flawed strategy. The President could cite the legacy of past interventions, almost all of which failed to produce either democracy or economic development. He could also applaud the wisdom of American skepticism toward international crusades.

Second, he could emphasize the paucity of quick or cost-free fixes to the problems of dictatorship and underdevelopment in countries like Haiti. Money spent on a military operation, the President might contend, would be better used to prevent future Haitis.

Third, Clinton should initiate a comprehensive review of sanctions. Paradoxically, the suffering of Haiti’s ordinary citizens caused by current sanction policy is putting more pressure on the United States to go in than on the junta to get out. We should thus consider ending general economic sanctions but strengthen measures aimed at freezing the foreign assets of Haitian elites and restricting travel.

Fourth, the President should make it clear that the principal responsibility for removing the thugs in Port-au-Prince rests with the Haitian people. The United States would be prepared to assist them in the same way that the French assisted us during our revolution and the Reagan Administration aided rebels in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua. Such a threat would send strong tremors through Haiti’s ruling elites.

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Finally, the President should decide whether we should accept Haitian refugees. With the Cuban exodus approaching crisis proportions, the refugee issue is more complex than ever. The moral case for accepting them is strong, but the practical one for discouraging them, or diverting them elsewhere, is valid.

Should Clinton takes these five steps, he would be acknowledging that a liberal internationalist approach cannot provide a viable answer to the dilemmas created by Haiti--and now Cuba. Only then will he be able to deal with the role of domestic politics in foreign policy.*


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