WASHINGTON -- Anyone who has seen the television pictures of Haitian refugees struggling to escape drowning as their sailboat sank during a U.S. Coast Guard rescue mission, or of Haitian children being fed to ward off starvation, cannot fail to grasp the severity of the situation on that troubled Caribbean island.
As a result, efforts by the Clinton administration to ameliorate the suffering should be generating widespread sympathy and support. But the signals of U.S. intent once again are so confusing that Americans are left to wonder, and fear, that the administration is playing another dangerous foreign policy crisis by ear.
For the second time in two days, the administration appeared to be changing its mind on what to do with the thousands of Haitian boat people attempting to flee the island. First it was said that those picked up who could offer some proof of political persecution would be sent to "safe havens" in Panama, but those who could not would be sent back.
Then, a day later, it was reported that after consultation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees no such proof would be required, and all those who simply said they feared persecution would be sent to Panama.
The first policy was announced last Tuesday by former Rep. William Gray, the president's special adviser on Haiti, setting off complaints from human rights groups. According to a National Security Council source, the second policy "evolved" after the consultations with the U.N. agency and was more a clarification than a change. But again the impression was left of an administration flip-flop.
Gray also said on Tuesday that Panama would take as many as 10,000 Haitians for up to six months. On Wednesday, that was corrected to a year in Panama. Why the administration did not wait until it had had the necessary conversations with the U.N. agency before disclosing the policy raised again the image of sloppy policy-making.
Another observation by Gray on Tuesday raised the specter of an invasion. "We don't expect the military regime [in Haiti] to be there six months from now," he said, adding that if the military dictatorship in power doesn't step aside "the president has made it very clear that the military option is just one" of several open to him.
The same National Security Council source says Gray was "pushed" by reporters into making contingency planning sound belligerent even though Gray added that no invasion was "imminent," and said later "there was no discussion of any kind of military intervention." That didn't stop Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole from charging Clinton with "beating war drums" for invasion.
Disclosure that more American Marines were being shipped to Haitian waters, ostensibly to assist in any necessary evacuation of American nationals, has served to heighten rumors that an invasion really is being planned. So has confirmation of a report ,, in the New York Times that beefed-up U.S. forces have already conducted a secret exercise rehearsing aspects of an invasion plan.
Clinton in Eastern Europe turned aside questions about a possible invasion of Haiti, in the process doing very little to curb speculation that frustration with the inability to drive the military leaders out through sanctions, coupled with the dire human consequences of inaction, was moving the president closer toward using military force.
The administration obviously hopes to avoid that step. Right now, a U.S. team is in South America trying to get other countries to accept "safe havens" for Haitian refugees in an obvious attempt not only to spread the burden but also to give a more multinational coloration to the refugee assistance effort.
For an American president who pledged in the 1992 campaign to reverse the closed-door policy toward Haiti of the Bush administration, these are difficult and embarrassing times. Gray
emphasized that no one who flees Haiti now will be admitted into the United States. Instead, Clinton is trying to cope with the human misery by diverting it, which at least is better than rejecting it altogether, while deciding whether to take "the military option" -- or just keep threatening it, which also has its risks in presidential credibility.