WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, invoking graphic images of the brutality unleashed by Haiti's military leaders against their own people, issued a blunt ultimatum to the island's dictators last night to give up power -- or be ousted by U.S. military force.
"The message of the United States to the Haitian dictators is clear: 'Your time is up. Leave now or we will force you from power,' " Mr. Clinton said in a 16-minute Oval Office speech televised to the American people and around the world.
"We must act," Mr. Clinton vowed. The president stressed the "limited and specific" nature of the U.S. effort to restore, "not guarantee," democracy in Haiti. He insisted that U.S. troops sent to the island would be withdrawn "in months, not years."
Looking determined as he stared directly into the camera, Mr. Clinton recited the recent history of Haiti: its first democratic elections in 1990, won by the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide with almost 70 percent of the vote. Then, seven months later, a military coup that installed a government characterized by corruption, torture and political murder.
"Haiti's dictators, led by Gen. Raoul Cedras, control one of the most violent regimes in our hemisphere," the president said. "For three years, they have rejected every peaceful solution that the international community has proposed. They have broken an agreement that they made to give up power. They have brutalized their people and destroyed their economy."
Insisting that the United States would be sending the wrong message to the world if it were to sit by and let "tyranny steal away" democracy so close to America's shores, Mr. Clinton declared: "In Haiti, we have a case in which what is right is clear, the country in question is nearby, our interests are plain, the mission is achievable and limited, and the nations of the world stand with us."
As Mr. Clinton spoke, 17 U.S. Navy vessels ringed Haiti, and two aircraft carriers steamed toward the Caribbean nation.
At the White House, top Clinton administration aides said they couldn't believe that Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and the other coup leaders would stay to face certain imprisonment -- or death.
"My gut tells me it's going to be resolved by these guys leaving," said one senior official.
However, in a defiant message televised to the United States, General Cedras said he had decided to stay on and fight.
"As we all know, in all wars there is loss of lives on both sides and also civilian casualties," he said in an interview with CBS News. Asked what would happen if the United States invades, General Cedras warned, "You will have the resistance of the people, and then you will have a massacre starting with a civil war."
Administration officials said that U.S. diplomats will make one last attempt to assure Haiti's military leaders that they will be guaranteed safe passage out of the country should they decide to resign.
But the president signed an executive order yesterday authorizing the call-up of 1,600 reservists to support the 20,000-person invasion force.
Earlier, General Cedras reportedly offered through an intermediary to resign and hold new elections. But he set a condition that is completely unacceptable to the Clinton administration -- that Father Aristide not be allowed to participate.
In an apparent reference to these back-channel negotiations, Mr. Clinton announced last night that Father Aristide had pledged to step down when his term ends in 1996 and that he would abide by Haiti's existing constitution and not run again.
"He has committed himself to promote reconciliation among all Haitians, and to set an historic example by peacefully transferring power to a duly elected successor," Mr. Clinton said. "He knows, as we know, that when you start a democracy the most important election is the second election. President Aristide has told me that he will consider his mission fulfilled not when he regains office, but when he leaves it to the next democratically elected president of Haiti."
Mr. Clinton's announcement represents a concession on Father Aristide's part. It also is a concession of sorts to the logic expressed by critics who wonder why Mr. Clinton is so obsessed with helping a nation with a long tradition of dictators.
"Along with three-quarters of the American public, I strongly oppose President Clinton's threatened invasion of Haiti to 'restore democracy' to a land that, unfortunately, has never known democracy," said Rep. Floyd D. Spence, a South Carolina Republican. "The president has failed to make the case that any vital U.S. national interest is at stake in Haiti."
Reversal of positions
In Congress, the politics of the invasion are the reverse of four years ago, when Republicans were gung-ho in their support of President George Bush's buildup on the border of Kuwait, while most Democrats were not convinced that all remedies short of war had been exhausted.
In the past few days, however, Democrats, too, have expressed reservations, even members of the Congressional Black Caucus who had pushed Mr. Clinton so hard to make Father Aristide's return to power a priority. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the caucus, said this week that he would like to be briefed before he offers his support. Earlier, almost the entire Maryland congressional delegation said much the same thing.
"I strongly urge the president to come to the Congress to seek its judgment on the policy he is proposing," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat up for re-election, told his colleagues Wednesday. "It is my view that the rationale [for invading] that has been put forth does not justify the actions he is proposing to take."
On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton acknowledged that public opinion has not yet jelled behind this mission. And last night, the president looked somber, but determined, as he outlined to a skeptical American public the reasons why he believes altering the course of Haiti's history is the legitimate business of the United States.
"I know that the United States cannot -- and should not -- be the world's policeman," the president said. "But we have a responsibility to respond when inhumanity offends our values. And we have a particular interest in stopping brutality when it occurs so close to our shores. Thousands of Haitians have already escaped to the United States, risking their lives to flee the reign of terror."
Using language that was uncommonly graphic for a presidential speech, Mr. Clinton spoke in some detail about atrocities attributed to the military or pro-government gunmen. "Cedras and his armed thugs have conducted a reign of terror," Mr. Clinton said. "Executing children. Raping women. Killing priests. As the dictators have grown more desperate, the atrocities have grown ever more brutal."
"International observers [have] uncovered a terrifying pattern of soldiers and policemen raping the wives and daughters of suspected political dissidents," the president added with anger in his voice. "Young girls -- 13, 16 years old. People slain and mutilated, with body parts left as warnings to terrify others. Children forced to watch as their mothers' faces are slashed with machetes."
'The next wave of refugees'
Mr. Clinton estimated that 300,000 Haitians -- 5 percent of the population -- are in hiding. "If we do not act, they will be the next wave of refugees at our door," he said.
In his remarks, General Cedras, wearing his military uniform, disputed U.S. accounts of atrocities and suggested that the U.S.-led economic sanctions were the real reason behind the exodus from Haiti.
While acknowledging that many of his fellow Americans have reservations about this initiative, Mr. Clinton sounded confident and certain last night.
Reaction on Capitol Hill followed predictable lines -- with those who have favored intervention before giving him good marks and those who didn't saying that they remained unconvinced -- but even Mr. Clinton's critics conceded that he marshaled his arguments well.
"A good speech cannot answer the serious policy questions," said Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Quite frankly, the United States has no apparent national interest in Haiti."
Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who supports the president, disagreed, saying last night after the speech that Mr. Clinton had done an excellent job of explaining why it was important for the United States to defend democratic governments and not "send the signal" that dictatorships are acceptable.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said he remains opposed to invading Haiti. Asked if he would support the president if he goes ahead, Mr. McCain answered that he would because it is important to support the commander-in-chief at such a time.
"But I will do it with great sadness," he added. "Because I know it means there will be some young Americans who will not be coming home."
We would like to hear your opinion about the United States invading Haiti and whether President Clinton's speech last night changed your mind.
You'll also be able to hear excerpts of the speech and if you have a fax machine, you may request a fax of the entire speech.
Call Sundial, the Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6185 after you hear the greeting. For more local numbers, see the SunSource notice on Page 2A.