WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration yesterday gave Haiti's military rulers six months to cede power. But that could be as much a reprieve from an imminent invasion as a threat.
Increasing the pressure in recent days, President Clinton's top aides have left the impression that the administration's patience with the military rulers who ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991 was running out.
This was part of the message in President Clinton's dispatch of four U.S. warships and 2,000 Marines to Haitian waters.
Already in place are the helicopter carrier USS Wasp with 650 Marines aboard. The Wasp is at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, about 100 miles from Haiti.
Another eight Navy warships are off Haiti enforcing the United Nations embargo.
On Tuesday, William H. Gray III, the administration's top adviser on Haiti, left open the possibility that an invasion might occur anytime after "a few days."
Senior White House officials reportedly had talked of ending the crisis one way or another by Labor Day, well before midterm congressional elections.
Yesterday Mr. Gray played down the prospect of an invasion in an interview with ABC News.
At the same time, he said: "We don't expect the military regime to be there six months from now. . . . If they don't [step down], then there are options that are open.
"The president has made it very clear that the military option is just one of those options."
Some Aristide supporters fear the administration might negotiate settlement that not only restores the Roman Catholic priest to the presidency but forces him to make concessions to the military and the wealthy elite that controls Haiti's economy.
"They're concerned about political fallout [from an invasion]," said Burton Wides, a lawyer for the ousted president, referring to the Clinton administration. "What's left is a negotiated solution."
Several complex factors -- military, diplomatic, humanitarian and political -- affect the timetable, according to officials, diplomats and others close to the Haiti crisis.
But the most difficult variable to gauge, based on past actions, is the level of Mr. Clinton's determination to see democracy in Haiti restored. These factors may be causing the mixed signals coming from the White House.
The chief concern is the flow of migrants, which is both a humanitarian crisis and a domestic political problem for Mr. Clinton, because it means a rising number of Haitians entering the United States.
But the number of boat people -- which reached a single-day record Monday with nearly 3,250 refugees -- may now drop because of the administration's new policy of denying them access to the United States and diverting them to "safe havens" in Panama and Caribbean islands.
Another concern is the level of violence inside Haiti. So far, however, Americans in Haiti -- an estimated 4,500 -- have not become targets and thus a clear justification to invade.
Yet another concern is the formation of an international peacekeeping force of up to 15,000 that would protect Father Aristide, create civil order and train a new Haitian police force once the military rulers are removed. This is essential if the United States is to avoid a prolonged occupation.
So far, the administration believes it has won commitments to participate in the peacekeeping force from France, Canada and Argentina, as well as some Caribbean countries.
But it's unclear whether they will supply enough troops to keep American participation in the force down to a politically acceptable minimum.
Then there is regional pressure. Caribbean nations that are providing processing sites and havens have agreed to do so only for six months.
Nations closest to Haiti are demanding that the crisis be resolved soon.
The U.S. political timetable also can't be overlooked. An invasion could prove difficult for Mr. Clinton and the Democrats during the midterm election campaign, but an unresolved Haitian crisis also would hurt. The best solution would be for an invasion to have already succeeded.
In a sign of the political debate to come, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole yesterday accused Mr. Clinton of "beating war drums."
"In my view the biggest danger to Americans in Haiti would be an American invasion," Mr. Dole said.
The weather is also a factor. Military officials have expressed concern about the effect of late-summer hurricanes on the hastily set-up refugee tent city at Guantanamo, Cuba.
"There is some planning going on over what happens if you have all these migrants and refugees in various locations with a storm approaching," said a Navy officer who asked not to be named.
"That's a concern."
Perhaps the most flexible variable is an invasion itself, since the administration's initial steps give the military wide latitude to act when the president decides.
A four-ship Navy amphibious assault group sailed from Norfolk, Va., yesterday. It will stop at Morehead City, N.C., today to pick up 2,000 Marines from nearby Camp Lejeune with their helicopters, light armoredvehicles, landing craft and howitzers.
They have been ordered to Haiti primarily to evacuate Americans if necessary. But they have the firepower to launch an initial invasion, should Mr. Clinton decide to do so.
"Any reasonable person looking at the size of this force would have to conclude that refugee control is not the only reason for its dispatch," said Loren B. Thompson, executive director of the defense section of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a moderate-conservative Washington think tank.
"The nice thing about sending an integrated group like this, is you don't have to commit to a specific course of action," Mr. Thompson said.
"You have a range of options that result from the extensive capabilities of the forces on all four ships."
The 2,000 Marines, he said, could "easily subdue" the poorly equipped and undertrained 7,000-member Haitian military, which, he said, would likely "melt into the crowd" in the face of a U.S. invasion.
But the deployment reduces the forces available for other American missions. And a drawn-out mission will likely damage morale among thousands of military families.
In a message to the assault group, which will arrive off Haiti early next week, Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the chief of naval operations, said:
"I hope this will be a short cruise. Nobody can predict its duration rightnow."
The Marines and sailors with the group, led by the helicopter carrier USS Inchon, have been home for less than two weeks since returning from a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, off the coast of Somalia.
Normally, they would have had six months to prepare for their next overseas tour. But in these days of military downsizing, no other forces were available for the rapid deployment -- undertaken on four days' notice -- to Haiti.
An officer in the Atlantic Command, which covers Haiti, said: "We are trying to do more with less. With a much smaller force, we don't have the flexibility. This was seen as the only sensible solution to deploying a militarily capable force."
The departure of the Inchon group from Norfolk yesterday was a somber affair, with the sailors' families upset by the rapid turnaround and aware that the ships are headed for a potentially explosive crisis.
"There were some unhappy folks down there," said a senior officer who was dockside when the ships sailed.
"I am not sure I would call it a miserable departure, but there were some wives who came down who were unhappy."
That scene is expected to be repeated at Camp Lejeune today, when the Marines leave their families to board the flotilla.
Capt. Jeff Jurgensen, a Marine spokesman, said: "It's no secret -- it's very hard on the Marines. Obviously it's always difficult to be separated from your family for six months. When you add on an additional deployment, it just increases the pressure.
"If those Marines are directed to sit offshore for whatever period of time, that's what they will do."