The Clinton Administration sought Tuesday to head off congressional moves to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti, but even its Democratic allies warned that Congress is now virtually certain to fix such a date before adjourning next week.
The Administration came in for sharp criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and other senior officials testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is drafting legislation that would set a March 1 deadline for the completion of the Haiti mission.
Despite a weekend firefight between U.S troops and Haitian police and sporadic civil unrest since then, the U.S. effort to restore order in Haiti is going well, Talbott said. The progress could be jeopardized if Congress sets a deadline that would only "embolden our foes" by giving the military junta and its supporters notice of when the troops will be leaving, he said.
Setting a withdrawal date could also undermine the Administration's goal of turning the Haiti peacekeeping mission over to a United Nations force as soon as possible, because other nations may be reluctant to contribute troops when they know "that the United States is going to check out," agreed Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch.
Deutch said the Pentagon hopes to complete the first phase of the mission and turn over its peacekeeping responsibilities to a 6,000-member U.N. force "in less than six months." Most of the 15,000 U.S. troops in Haiti would then be withdrawn, with no more than 3,000 remaining behind to constitute the largest contingent of the U.N. force.
But setting a firm withdrawal date could upset that transition because it would allow supporters of military leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to "plan incidents around that certain date" so that the U.N. troops may be reluctant to take over after the Americans leave, he said.
But the congressional misgivings about the mission--as well as anger over President Clinton's refusal to seek the consent of lawmakers before dispatching the troops--were evident in the skeptical to openly hostile reaction from the foreign affairs panel.
Haitian democracy "may have been enhanced by the American occupation but . . . democracy in the United States has not been helped" by the Administration's decision to commit the nation without congressional consent to "an expensive operation in which there will almost certainly be loss of life," Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) told Talbott.
Privately, several other Democrats added that the Administration understands that public sentiment against the occupation is still running too strong for Congress, in a tough election year, to adjourn Oct. 7 without setting a termination date for the mission.
"Health care may be dead and campaign finance reform may be dying, but even if we do nothing else, we have to be able to tell the voters on Nov. 8 that we did something to bring the troops home," one Democratic lawmaker said. The only question, he added, is "not whether there will be a deadline, but how much flexibility will be built into it, how much face the Administration will be able to save."
Congress technically has two options for imposing a withdrawal date on the Administration. One would be to invoke the 1973 War Powers Act, which would require Clinton to seek congressional authorization for the Haiti mission or terminate it within 60 days. That option, however, could set up a messy legal confrontation between Congress and the White House because Clinton, like his Republican predecessors, refuses to acknowledge the constitutionality of the act.
A more plausible way for Congress to intervene would be to follow the precedent it set last year during the Somalia crisis, when it exercised its power of the purse to cut off funds for the U.S. military mission after a certain date.
Although many lawmakers favor that option, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) is drafting a third alternative that has slightly less weight. Congress would authorize the troops to remain in Haiti until March 1, a step that would oblige Clinton to seek an extension if he wants to avoid a major clash with Congress. If Clinton did not comply, Congress could be expected to either invoke the War Powers Act or cut off funding.
"If the mission is going well, if it has support, then he ought to be able to get consent to extend it if it's really necessary to do so. . . . But Clinton has to understand that, especially after Somalia, Congress is not going to give him a totally free hand in Haiti," a senior committee aide said.