WASHINGTON -- The administration scrambled yesterday to avoid being compelled by the flood of Haitian boat people to order an invasion of Haiti.
President Clinton returns from Europe on Tuesday to confront a worsening humanitarian crisis and a defiant military dictatorship in the impoverished Caribbean nation. By the time he arrives in Washington, the 2,000 Marines who sailed from North Carolina for Haiti on Thursday will be in place, armed and ready for any orders.
Also by that time, the effect of the administration's new effort to stem the flow of refugees by banning them from asylum in the United States and sending them to havens in other Caribbean countries will be reflected in the latest refugee figures.
If the exodus has not lessened, the pressure for action will increase.
Mr. Clinton, in Naples, Italy, yesterday for the economic summit with leaders of the richest industrial countries, denied that his own policy reversals had contributed to the rising flood of Haitian refugees.
"I think, overwhelmingly, the reason for the increased exodus of people looking for safety is the violation of human rights by military dictators who overturned a legitimate election and who broke their own word to leave," Mr. Clinton said. "And I don't think we should lose sight of that."
He said that he wanted "to divide what is happening there with the refugees from the question of how best to deal it."
Keeping the possibility of military action open, Mr. Clinton said: "We are working on very tough enforcement of the [economic] sanctions. We have not ruled other options out."
Trying to keep the focus on Haiti's military leaders rather than on his policies, he said the military leaders' conduct "will have more than anything else to do with what options are considered when, and their conduct has not been good."
To try to stem the flow of refugees, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince announced yesterday that it would:
* Tape radio spots to encourage Haitians not to take to the seas.
* Double to 12 the number of U.S. immigration interviewers in Port-au-Prince to shore up the in-country program for Haitians seeking U.S. political asylum. Less than 3 percent of the applicants have received asylum since the program began in 1992, and the process on average takes five months.
* Send seven teams of embassy investigators to the Haitian countryside to look into reports of human rights abuses. The United Nations also announced yesterday that it would extend its mandate another year in Haiti and human rights monitors would resume work.
* Begin repatriations next week of as many as 650 refugees a day.
The U.S. Embassy will also be reinforced with more Marines, razor wire and sandbags around the compound.
Inside the Pentagon, where there are deep misgivings about the risks of invading Haiti and the difficulties of ending U.S. involvement, the feeling is growing that invasion is now more rather than less likely.
"The crunch will be the flow of refugees this weekend," said a senior defense official who asked not to be named. "If it doesn't turn down, that's another clue that things can't hold here, and that this dike is about to burst. There is a certain level of readiness on our side."
The continuing defiance of the Haitian military leader, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the availability of the USS Inchon amphibious assault group, and the overwhelming exodus of boat people are all seen as increasing the likelihood of U.S. military intervention.
"To be perfectly honest about it, I don't think the Inchon can come home until Cedras is out of Haiti," said retired Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr., former assistant deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy and operations. "If [Mr. Clinton] turns that group around, and Cedras is still running the show in Haiti, he is going to look like the biggest wimp of all time."
A U.S. team, led by Thomas McNamara of the State Department and Richard Feinberg of the National Security Council staff, is traveling in the Caribbean-Latin American region, trying to enlist other nations to join a United Nations peacekeeping force once Haiti's military leaders leave power.
To prevent the exodus of boat people from becoming the driving factor in the crisis, the administration was scouring the Caribbean yesterday for more nations willing to provide temporary havens for the refugees barred from U.S. entry.
The islands of Antigua, Dominica, Grenada and Turks and Caicos have offered to help. But the administration's plan to redirect the flow of boat people away from the United States suffered a major setback when Panama reneged Thursday on its promise to provide shelter for 10,000 refugees.