Is the American military venture in Haiti falling victim to "mission creep"--the kind of unconscious expansion of U.S. troops' basic role in a foreign operation that helped turn the intervention in Somalia last year into a debacle?
At first blush, the symptoms appear to be there: The Clinton Administration entered Haiti with the assertion that U.S. troops would not become involved in day-to-day police operations there. That would be left to the Haitian police.
Barely a day later, clearly uncomfortable U.S. officials announced that as a result of the excessive force being used by the Haitian police, U.S. military police would be "overseeing" the Haitians--and personally intervening if necessary to prevent abuses.
In other words, the U.S. troops would be playing cop after all.
The prospect of mounting risks for U.S. troops has sent jitters through Congress, which still is smarting from the Somalia experience, when a shift in the mission--from ensuring security to hunting down clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid--sparked a war between Aidid and U.S. forces.
Those worries were heightened by an incident Saturday when U.S. Marines killed 10 Haitian policemen after a couple of the Haitians pointed firearms at the Americans. The Marines acted well within their rules of engagement, but the exchange raised visions of Somali-style violence.
Alarmed by the seeming mission creep in Haiti, U.S. lawmakers began moving Monday to set a firm deadline for withdrawing all American troops from the country, with plans to bring legislation to the floor soon.
And commentators have taken to leveling the charge as a matter of routine. "This isn't (just) mission creep --it's mission leap !" Daniel Schorr, senior correspondent for National Public Radio, told his listeners over the weekend.
Last week's rhetorical turnabout aside, both the Pentagon and independent military analysts deny that the Administration has dangerously expanded the military's mission in Haiti and say that America has to serve as a police force to make the operation work.
"We are resisting and we will continue to resist mission creep," Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters at a briefing Monday afternoon. "We will do what is necessary in the exigencies of the moment, (but) we will not undertake to perform routine police functions," such as crowd control, which the Haitian police still are performing.
Robert B. Oakley, former President George Bush's special envoy in the first (and highly successful) part of the Somalia operation--who vigorously criticized the mission creep that eventually strangled the second phase of the U.S. intervention--agreed with Perry.
Had the United States actually invaded Haiti under fire, U.S. troops would have had to beat back the Haitian military and would have been forced to assume all police functions in the country.
"I wouldn't say that this is mission creep," he said.
Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon strategist now with the Defense Budget Project, said that at least part of the military's problem has been the takeover accord worked out by former President Jimmy Carter, which requires that U.S. troops cooperate with the Haitian police.
Had U.S. troops had to enter Haiti by force, they would have overturned the Haitian police altogether and taken on all police functions by necessity. The Carter plan obviated the need for that, but the Haitian cops overstepped their bounds. Now, the Americans are back in the game.
Even if the mission has not yet been expanded that much, the job still is a risky one for the Americans who are on duty in Haiti.
"The dangers would be inherent anyway," said retired Marine Brig. Gen. George H. Walls Jr., who dealt with Haitian refugees in 1992. "The potential for things that you don't want to happen is there. It was one of the risks that we had to assess at the beginning."
Indeed, Pentagon strategists are not so worried about the current situation as they are about the danger of mushrooming unrest--and possibly some sniping against U.S. troops--beginning next weekend as the Oct. 15 deadline for the restoration of the government of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide nears.
Haitian military leaders already "see their power base eroding," a senior U.S. military officer said. "That's going to be the time that we have to pay particular attention."
The Clinton Administration is trying to rein in congressional efforts to force a quick exit of U.S. forces. Perry warned lawmakers Monday that setting a specific withdrawal date would only undermine the mission and jeopardize the safety of the expected 15,000 troops in Haiti.
But many senators and House members appeared unconvinced.
"They didn't say anything I hadn't heard on television the night before," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading GOP critic of the operation.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is scrambling to retain the Haitian police as a buffer between U.S. combat troops and Haitian citizens, even if that means coaxing previously errant police back to their jobs.
Two days after the Marine squad killed the 10 Haitians, U.S. commanders asked Haiti's military chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, to order the remaining policemen, who had scattered, back to their posts.
Times staff writer Michael Ross contributed to this story.