WASHINGTON -- In its latest policy shift on Haiti, the Clinton administration acknowledged yesterday that Jean-Bertrand Aristide's election by an overwhelming majority isn't enough to win his return to power: He needs support from the people who count.
The administration now pins hopes for Father Aristide's return as president on the development of a coalition -- to a large extent formed by others -- that would build on his popularity among Haiti's dirt-poor masses with backing from the military, the business establishment and the Roman Catholic Church.
Creation of such a coalition probably would require acquiescence by the military chiefs who drove Father Aristide from power in the first place and who have been resisting U.S.-led pressure to allow his return.
In throwing support behind Prime Minister Robert Malval's proposal for a national conference to reconcile Father Aristide's supporters with the country's powerful groups, the administration seems to be acknowledging that it has run out of options for restoring democracy to the wretched Caribbean nation.
Sanctions have failed to dislodge its military rulers, and the United States is unwilling to resort to force. At the same time, the administration fears that a drastic tightening of the embargo could unleash a new flood of boat people headed for the United States.
Finally, the figure in whom many U.S. officials placed the greatest confidence, Mr. Malval, appears intent on leaving the political scene.
For months, the Clinton administration has demanded Father Aristide's return to power simply because he was legitimately elected by the majority of the nation's voters. The administration has made "enlargement" of free-market democracy a pillar of its foreign policy.
But Lawrence Pezzullo, special adviser on Haiti to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, suggested yesterday that Father Aristide's ouster in a bloody coup two years ago stemmed in part from his failure to build a strong base at the center.
"If you don't build a center coalition of some sort of strength . . . you're always going to be beset by people at the extremes who will rip at it," he told reporters yesterday.
He said that Father Aristide represented "a choice of the people, but certainly that coalition of forces that would have supported his presidency never jelled." He described Father Aristide's election as "a stage in a process of governance."
Haiti now needs to build a political force strong enough that Father Aristide "will have sufficient support among elements within that society to be able to survive," Mr. Pezzullo said.
Father Aristide, who lives in exile in Georgetown, has publicly endorsed the Malval initiative. But an adviser, who declined to be identified, said the ousted president has "no reason to believe this is any more likely to be successful than any of the other efforts that have been made."
Mr. Malval said in Washington this week that the conference would draw on Haiti's private sector and "basic groups, the church, the political parties, the parliament members and so on."
Father Aristide is still opposed by the military and the Roman Catholic hierarchy and feared by at least part of Haiti's elite. Mr. Malval is headed to Rome this week to seek Vatican support for his efforts. Father Aristide was removed from his Salesian order for his political activities, and the Vatican recognized the military government after his ouster.
Out of the conference proposed by Mr. Malval, Mr. Pezzullo said, "will come a series of recommendations and judgments." Father Aristide, he said, would use them "in such a way that they build this . . . coalition of forces in the center that can provide stability in the period ahead." He insisted that members of Haiti's current, repressive regime would not be allowed in any new government.
Since Mr. Malval intends the conference to take place in Haiti, Father Aristide will have to rely on supporters and agents to influence its outcome. His advisers fear for his life if he were to return to Haiti now.
Both Mr. Malval and U.S. officials say the conference should use as a framework the Governors Island accord, in which top military officials agreed to allow Father Aristide's return and to cede power in exchange for amnesty.
But Mr. Pezzullo said the accords themselves wouldn't define the new government.
The prime minister, who plans to remain as acting prime minister after he steps down next week, indicated Monday that his replacement could be chosen as a result of the conference.
"The fact that the stage will be vacant might probably, I hope, create a consensus . . . around somebody who would be acceptable to all parties." He said that a "good example of what we could have in the future" is a large government such as exists in Zimbabwe. He quoted the African nation's prime minister, Robert Mugabe, as saying that while expensive, such a government "costs less than a war."