WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- You have to wonder whether, when Bill Clinton was a youngster in that town called Hope, anyone ever read him the story, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."
While various high-level members of his administration continue to say that a U.S. invasion of Haiti is not "imminent," they continue to insist at the same time that the country's military dictators must go and that the U.S. "military option" remains a live one.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher says that "nobody thinks the use of force is the most attractive option, but it may come to that." While the United States still hopes economic sanctions will work, he says, "It's time for their illegal government to go."
White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, speaking of the flood of refugees created by a "brutal military dictatorship just a few miles from our shore," observed over the weekend that "we cannot simply sit back and allow the status quo to eat us up alive."
The administration obviously hopes that this approach will persuade Haiti's strongmen finally to step down, and maybe in the end it will. But the political reality is that such talk is locking this president into a commitment to rid Haiti of its military dictators one way or the other, or accept a colossal blow to his personal prestige and credibility.
Haiti's current leaders ought not to have to be told explicitly that the United States has the power and the will to remove them if they don't remove themselves. They are a bunch of tinhorn thugs with a ragtag army and navy that does not offer near the capacity to resist that was posed, for example, by another Latin American strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, in Panama in late 1990.
Yet the administration has felt obliged to "cry wolf" in repeatedly talking about "the military option." And once again the personal military history of Bill Clinton raises the stakes for him if he stands on its head the old Theodore Roosevelt axiom to "speak softly and carry a big stick."
A Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy or George Bush -- all fighting heroes of World War II -- could probably have used the technique of bluff and then not carried through without severe political damage to themselves, but not Clinton.
Even Ronald Reagan, who in 1983 vowed after a car bomb obliterated a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that U.S. forces would stay in Lebanon but shortly afterward pulled them out, was not hurt politically by doing so. One reason, beyond his personal popularity, was the fact that two days after the Beirut disaster he ordered U.S. forces to invade tiny Grenada. It was hardly akin to starting World War III, but it did demonstrate resolve at a politically critical time for him.
But Clinton, who took pains to stay out of the military during the Vietnam War, not only bears scars in the eyes of many voters from that behavior but also has suffered damage to his image as a result of real or perceived policy flip-flops on Somalia and Bosnia.
The turning back of U.S. training forces from Haiti in October when henchmen from the regime in power threatened their peaceful landing didn't help Clinton's reputation either.
All this old and recent history raises the pressure on the president to show his mettle this time around.
And having so repeatedly permitted administration spokesmen to talk about an invasion and to express impatience with the failure of the Haitian dictators to step aside, he cannot afford politically to let matters slide.
The fact that polls show Americans overwhelmingly want no unilateral U.S. invasion -- 75 percent in a weekend Time-CNN
survey of 600 voters -- suggests that even if Clinton finally takes forceful action in Haiti he may not benefit politically by following through on his tough talk.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who is weighing a challenge to President Clinton in 1996, thus is expressing the popular mood when he says the United States should not "run around invading countries [unless] there's American interests threatened or American lives threatened."
That is all the more reason Clinton should have been speaking softly while carrying a big stick in dealing with the sticky situation in the Caribbean.