For Clinton, Haiti offers turbulent political waters


WASHINGTON -- The Republicans are muttering darkly about another "October surprise" -- in this case, President Clinton ordering an invasion of Haiti to crystallize support behind his administration shortly before the Nov. 8 congressional elections. Even Dan Quayle took a moment from his new role as self-anointed arbiter of family values to charge that the president is planning the invasion for political reasons.

In fact, the situation in Haiti presents far more political risk for Clinton than any gain he could hope to realize. Opinion polls consistently show little support for such an invasion, and increasingly isolationist voters are complaining about spending money on Haiti rather than domestic concerns. If there were any substantial number of casualties, the president could expect an angry backlash.

Moreover, although no one likes to talk about it publicly, political professionals suspect there is an element of racism in attitudes toward Haiti. It is no coincidence that the only heavy pressure on Clinton to act is coming from the Congressional Black Caucus.

The rule of thumb in politics is that foreign adventures are good politics for presidents because the country tends to rally around the White House whenever there seems to be any international crisis. That was what happened with President Ronald Reagan when he invaded Grenada in 1983 and with President George Bush when he attacked Iraq in 1991.

But those situations were quite different. The Grenada mission, trumped up ostensibly because some medical students were in jeopardy, came on the heels of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon when Americans were looking for success flexing their muscles, even if it was no more than the equivalent of conquering Allentown, Pa.

In the case of Iraq, Bush had a marvelous villain, Saddam Hussein, against whom he could juxtapose himself, and a clear case of intolerable behavior in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The fact that a huge quantity of oil was involved didn't weaken his case either.

There is no such rationalization available as a cover for an invasion of Haiti. This is a tiny country that poses no threat to tTC anyone except, of course, its own citizens living in hunger and squalor. It is hard to see the national self-interest for the United States beyond the obvious one that we cannot endure indefinitely the floods of refugees streaming out of Haiti.

So Clinton is in the position of having to act for reasons that are by no means political magic -- meaning, because we cannot tolerate indefinitely this illegitimate military government refusing to allow the country's elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to return to office.

The stakes for Clinton would be enormous. The president's approval rating is at a new low of about 40 percent right now, in large measure because of the perception of him as ineffectual and vacillating. If anything were to go seriously wrong in Haiti, that perception would be reinforced -- just as the picture of President Jimmy Carter as weak was reinforced by the Iran hostage crisis and the failure of the rescue mission he sent to Tehran.

On the other hand, there is some obvious possibility Clinton's approval ratings in the polls might shoot up with a quick and surgical success in Haiti, complete with nightly television film of the starving Haitians cheering American troops. But there are limits on just how valuable that political gain would be.

In the case of the midterm elections now less than nine weeks away, the effect probably would be marginal. Voters don't make a lot of two-step decisions that might lead them to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate because Clinton took over Port-au-Prince. Over the longer haul, the president has only to review the experience of Bush, who saw his approval ratings reach 90 percent after Desert Storm only to collapse within six months as voters began to focus on the economy and the war in Iraq became instant ancient history.

No one who knows how things work in Washington would argue that there is not a political element in the calculations the White House is making about Haiti right now. That is true of every decision of any magnitude made by any White House. But it stretches credulity to imagine Clinton or his advisers see Haiti as a political gold mine.

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