WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, insisting yesterday that "there was no deal" with Somalian Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid for the return of a wounded U.S. helicopter pilot, nevertheless left open the possibility that the fugitive warlord can play a leadership role in Somalia.
In a wide-ranging news conference devoted solely to foreign policy issues, the president also said he has no intention of backing down in his quest to restore exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
In fact, Mr. Clinton hinted broadly that he is considering a blockade to enforce a U.N. embargo aimed at the island's military dictatorship.
"The people in Haiti would be sadly misguided if they think the United States has weakened its resolve to see democracy [restored there]," the president said.
It was clear from both the content and tone of Mr. Clinton's remarks that he has been stung by criticism of his administration's foreign policy.
"I've had people who were involved in the two previous administrations say that our national security decision-making process was at least as good as the two in the previous ones, perhaps better," the president said.
He was particularly insistent that he'd made no pact with General Aidid in return for the release of Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, who was captured during a firefight Oct. 3 that killed 18 American soldiers and 300 Somalis. A Nigerian soldier captured earlier also was freed.
"We had strong resolve," Mr. Clinton said. "We showed that we were willing to support the resumption of the peace process, and we showed that we were determined to protect our soldiers and to react, when appropriate, by strengthening our position there. I think the policy was plainly right. But there was no deal."
Commenting on a future role for General Aidid, he said, "We have no interest in keeping any clan or sub clan or group of Somalis out of the political process affecting the future of their people."
"The clan structure seems to be the dominant structure in the country. It is not for the United States or for the United Nations to eliminate whole groups of people from having a role in Somalia's future."
His remarks were the latest sign of an abrupt shift in U.S. policy regarding General Aidid. Less than two weeks ago, U.S. officials regarded him as a bloodthirsty thug -- and the last great impediment to peace in Somalia.
Trying to arrest Aidid
The 18 Army Rangers killed were trying to arrest General Aidid, whom the United Nations fingered as the mastermind behind the slaughter June 5 of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers.
Yesterday, however, Mr. Clinton emphasized that the U.S. forces were merely performing a police function in attempting to apprehend General Aidid and could not be certain of his complicity in the June attack.
Regarding Haiti, the president was asked point-blank if he was considering a blockade. He avoided using the word, but said, "I think that we have to enforce the [U.N.] sanctions."
Armed thugs in Port-au-Prince shouted Monday, "We're going to turn this into another Somalia" as a U.S. Navy ship was prevented from docking.
Mr. Clinton rejected arguments that the defiance of Haitian military leaders and their supporters was encouraged by the administration's appearance of appeasement in Somalia.
"I think those people on the docks in Haiti were probably the
hired hands of the elites that don't want democracy to come to Haiti, so I don't think they have drawn any sophisticated interpretation from world events," Mr. Clinton said.
Hours after Mr. Clinton's remarks, Haiti's justice minister was assassinated, prompting a statement of dismay from the White House and new calls for action from Congress.
Rangel for intervention
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., said diplomatic measures weren't working and argued it was time for U.N. military intervention.
The president also reiterated his position that withdrawing the Navy ship was not a question of toughness, but of common sense.
"I was not about to put 200 American Seabees into a potentially dangerous situation for which they were neither trained nor armed to deal with at that moment, and I did not want to leave the boat in the harbor so that that became the symbol of the debate," he said.
The president maintained earlier that the United States did not go to either Haiti or Somalia to prove it could win military battles.
"No one seriously questions the fact that we could clean out that whole section of Mogadishu with minimum loss to ourselves if that's what we wanted to do," he said.
The president did, however, concede that the unexpected twists in Somalia and Haiti had caused him to rethink the difficulties of interceding in Bosnia, a place where U.S. troops would face far more daunting terrain -- and an opponent vastly better armed.
He said he'd be much more cautious about having Americans in a peacekeeping role "where there was any ambiguity at all" about their role. In addition, he said he was convinced now, more than ever, that any U.S. troops in Bosnia would have to be under the control of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and not of the United Nations.
Defends foreign policy
Mr. Clinton's appearance in the White House press briefing room was arranged ostensibly so he could express his pleasure and relief that Chief Warrant Officer Durant had been released. But the session turned into an impassioned defense of his foreign policy operation, which has been criticized as vacillating and uncertain.
"I think on the biggest issues affecting the future and the security of the United States, we have a good record," he said.
"We have done very well with Russia, the most important issue. We have set up a system that did not exist before we came to office to deal with the other republics of the former Soviet Union and to work on nuclear issues and other issues.
"I think we have done quite well with the Middle East peace process and with its aftermath. I think we have done well to establish the groundwork of a new basis of a relationship with Japan and with Asia generally."