WASHINGTON -- In one of the most fateful foreign policy decisions of his presidency, Bill Clinton was a peripheral player.
After a truculent Haitian regime barred Port-au-Prince's harbor to the USS Harlan County, with 600 U.S. and Canadian military trainers aboard, President Clinton's top advisers decided to order the ship home.
"The president was informed of the decision," but only after it was made, says a top foreign policy aide.
Besides broadcasting an embarrassing image of U.S. retreat, the move in October emboldened Haiti's military to resist pressure to step aside and sent the United Nations' efforts to rebuild the shattered nation into a tailspin.
"Harlan County was a death blow," says a U.S. official involved in Haiti policy.
But it was just one of many policy shifts, delays and empty threats that make Haiti a burning crisis for Mr. Clinton, one that may end only with invasion and a prolonged occupation heavily dependent on the United States.
Like a ship on hurricane-tossed seas, Mr. Clinton's Haiti policy has been blown from one course to another by pressures he has failed to control.
Managed by a shifting team of players, without consistent attention from the president, the policy has eroded U.S. credibility with both the man he is trying to restore to power, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the military leaders he hopes to topple.
How Mr. Clinton reached this predicament appears as a case study in crisis management by a White House that wrestles with inherited problems while stopping short of steps required to solve them.
At crucial points, pressure has been applied on both sides, then eased without result.
Campaigning against George Bush in 1992, Mr. Clinton deplored the forced repatriation of Haitian refugees.
But he soon faced the prospect that thousands would head for the United States, beginning the day of his inauguration -- thanks largely to what he had said during the campaign.
Samuel R. Berger, deputy national security adviser, and Brian Atwood, who headed the State Department transition team, persuaded Father Aristide to agree to a Clinton flip-flop that would continue the Bush repatriation policy and prevent any rush of refugees.
The exiled president broadcast an appeal to Haitians not to take to the seas.
In return, the Clinton team assured him that the incoming U.S. president would make restoration of democracy a high priority.
Officials say they offered no date. But Michael D. Barnes, the former Maryland congressman who is an Aristide adviser, recalls, "It was clear to everyone they were talking about the spring of 1993 -- a few weeks, a few months at most."
More than a month later, little had happened. On a snowy Saturday, President Clinton exploded with impatience at aides preparing him for a meeting with Father Aristide.
Mr. Clinton "said we didn't have anything resembling a policy," recalled Lawrence A. Pezzullo, an expletive-spitting pragmatist, enlisted to spearhead negotiations between a deeply distrustful Father Aristide and the corrupt military that overthrew him in 1991.
Both sides required pressure, the retired U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua concluded. But his tools were limited. He could remind Haiti's military of the members of Panama's Defense Forces killed in a U.S. invasion. But the use of U.S. military force was, at the time, out of the question.
His clout in Washington was limited, too. Crucial decisions came from the White House, where Mr. Berger was the point man. The collegial former trade lawyer couldn't suppress leaked anti-Aristide commentary from the Pentagon and CIA.
And neither he nor Mr. Pezzullo could win the trust of Father Aristide's backers on Capitol Hill. Secretary of State Warren M. -- Christopher showed little interest.
The imposition of limited United Nations sanctions brought Haiti's military chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, to the table, and after much wrangling, an agreement to restore Father Aristide to power was worked out at New York's Governors Island.
Then it was Washington's turn. Under the pact, the United Nations agreed to ease the retirement of Haiti's top brass by sending 600 trainers to professionalize the Haitian military and police. The United States provided most of the force.
But what was intended as a training mission took on a confrontational aspect after the Pentagon and National Security Council staff began worrying about the trainers' safety, Mr. Pezzullo and others say.
The trainers came all at one time aboard the Harlan County, in a larger force than originally planned and so close in timing to Father Aristide's return that they looked like a praetorian guard.
Mr. Pezzullo wanted to keep their M-16 rifles a secret, but Les Aspin, then defense secretary, let that fact slip in a TV interview.
After debating whether to overthrow General Cedras, Haitian vTC army hard-liners blocked the USS Harlan County's arrival and dispatched thugs to the docks to demonstrate.
Mr. Pezzullo, deriding the demonstration as "theater," thought he could fly to Haiti and get General Cedras to let the ship land.
Ship became a symbol
But at a meeting of Mr. Clinton's top foreign policy aides, all except Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, agreed on withdrawing the ship quickly.
"The view of just about everybody was, 'Get it out, because every day that it's there it becomes a symbol of its inability to get ashore,' " says W. Anthony Lake, the national security adviser
Mr. Clinton, says a senior official, "accepted the judgment. All of us, in hindsight, would have handled it differently."
"Cedras was as stunned as anyone" by the turnabout, says a U.S. diplomat who met with him later.
When the deadline came for him to step aside, General Cedras hung on.
The affront cried out for punishment.
But the White House resisted toughening sanctions, even after General Cedras ignored a deadline to step aside.
This was another "body blow" to Washington's credibility with the Haitian military, says a U.S. official.
Instead, attention shifted to pressuring Father Aristide into broadening his planned government and persuading Haitian centrists to accept him.
But Father Aristide, always reluctant to make tough decisions, became more disillusioned with the United States because of the delay in stiffening sanctions.
"Whether it was a reason or excuse, we gave it to him," the U.S. official says now. Even the existing fuel cutoff was weakly enforced.
In February, the Haitian priest-president condemned the forced repatriation of refugees. By breaking his silence, he opened the floodgates of opposition to repatriation among his supporters in Washington, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus. Emboldened, Father Aristide in late March rejected terms of a new U.S. effort to negotiate his return and the military leaders' departure.
Then, on April 12, Randall Robinson, director of the Trans-Africa lobbying group and one of Washington's most skilled activists, began a hunger strike -- to last until the United States abandoned forced repatriation of Haitian refugees.
Administration officials insist they were alert to the human rights abuses in Haiti that were overwhelming the processing of refugees in Haiti. They recognized that some Haitians were being forced back to the island despite a valid fear of repression.
Combined, the new pressures forced Mr. Clinton to act. In early ** May, the president reversed his policy, directing all pressure against the Haitian military, abandoning forced repatriation and tightening sanctions. He also started discussing what officials still call "the military option."
Pezzullo forced out
New policy-makers appeared. Mr. Pezzullo was forced out, replaced by William H. Gray III, a skilled politician long familiar with the Caribbean, who demanded an end to forced repatriation before taking the unpaid job. In eight trips to the region in as many weeks, Mr. Gray has worked strenuously to unite the hemisphere against the Haitian dictatorship.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, pressed by colleagues, also assumed a stronger role.
Sanctions have been tightened and are squeezing the rich elite that controls Haiti's economy. But like a sudden gale, a rush of refugees overwhelmed the policy-makers, forcing them to bar Haitian boat people from asylum in the United States.
If the figures mount, the refugees could strain even the new "safe haven" sites quickly arranged on some cooperative Caribbean islands. That would deprive the Clinton administration the time needed for nonmilitary pressure to work.
Clinton interest wanes
And even as the Pentagon rattles its sabers, Mr. Clinton's own involvement is tapering off.
Three days after returning from his European trip, he had yet to hold a full discussion with his advisers on Haiti.
And Mr. Christopher acknowledged Friday that the president and his advisers have not crossed an important threshold -- deciding that restoration of democracy is worth using U.S. military force.
"They've got themselves into one hell of a mess," said Mr. Pezzullo, retired to his home in Baltimore's Roland Park.
Even if Father Aristide returns, Mr. Pezzullo says, he won't have broad enough support to govern effectively. "They're going to have one headache in Haiti."