President Clinton plans to issue a public ultimatum to Haiti’s military leaders to step down or face a U.S. invasion--but not just yet, officials said Thursday.
Clinton and his top aides reached “a general consensus” in favor of sending an ultimatum during a White House meeting this week, but they are still considering when and how to do it.
Although the officials refused to say when the ultimatum might be sent, their comments indicated that any military action in Haiti is several weeks away at least.
“These are all measures we might take at the end of the line, and we’re probably not at that point yet,” one senior official said.
A probable course, one official said, would be to send the Haitians a private message first--through U.S. diplomats in Haiti, intelligence agents or indirect contacts--followed by a public ultimatum with a short deadline, perhaps as short as 24 or 48 hours.
"(We) might give them a little time to think about it--a very little time,” one official said. “We’ve been warning them for three years now, so they shouldn’t need much.”
The private message, another official said, might include a concrete offer to the top Haitian military officers of safe transportation into exile for themselves and their families.
Officials gave two reasons for giving the Haitian leaders a final, formal warning: to increase the chance that they will give up power peacefully and avoid a U.S. invasion, and to make clear to both the American public and other countries that the United States sought every possible non-military solution to the Haitian problem.
But after debating the issue, Clinton and his aides agreed that issuing the ultimatum now--or setting a deadline well in advance--was a bad idea.
The Pentagon fears that setting a specific date for U.S. military action might eliminate any element of surprise and limit its flexibility in conducting military operations, one official said. U.S. diplomats fear that giving a deadline would merely encourage the Haitians to ignore the threat for a few weeks more.
And Haitian opposition leaders say they have been warned that in the event of an ultimatum, the regime’s forces will murder them in a final act of retribution or take them hostage in an effort to forestall an invasion.
The Administration has already warned the military regime that any roundup of opposition leaders could touch off a “hair-trigger” U.S. invasion. But Haitian democrats say they are increasingly concerned that the mounting rhetoric from Washington, coupled with the lack of action against the regime, is putting their lives in peril.
In a bit of saber-rattling, a senior official told reporters that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, met this week with Haiti’s exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to brief him on U.S. invasion plans.
“We are reviewing military planning, and it was appropriate to include the constitutional president of Haiti in the process,” the official said, adding that Shalikashvili’s briefing included maps and charts.
And the Pentagon announced that it has activated seven large cargo ships for transporting weapons and supplies to support a Haiti invasion force.
A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Col. Doug Kennett, said the seven “roll-on, roll-off” ships from a fleet of ships kept in mothballs for short-notice deployment would be ready for loading in four days.
Activating the ships is “part of preparations for potential operations in Haiti should they be needed,” Kennett said.
The ships, which are 600 feet to 700 feet long and carry a crew of about 30, are capable of carrying tanks, artillery and other heavy military gear needed to support an invasion force. They are currently in ports in Baltimore; Jacksonville, Fla.; Wilmington, Del., and Beaumont and Orange, Tex.
Once they are ready to sail, they will be loaded at ports near the military installations housing the troops that would lead the invasion.
White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said Clinton intends to consult with members of Congress about his intentions toward Haiti, but he does not plan to seek a vote formally authorizing the use of U.S. troops there.
“It is important to the President that he work with Congress, which is why he’s done that throughout this policy, not just on Haiti but across the board on foreign policy,” she said. “He believes that there ought to be outreach to both sides of the aisle, to Republicans as well as Democrats, and that’s something that he’ll continue to do.”
Former President George Bush also contended that he did not need congressional approval for the much larger Persian Gulf War, but sought a formal endorsement from Capitol Hill to demonstrate American resolve on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.
Clinton has little congressional support for military action in Haiti, except from the 38-member Black Caucus, which has long advocated intervention against the military junta that overthrew elected President Aristide nearly three years ago.