WASHINGTON -- With U.S. warships poised to invade Haiti, President Clinton is dispatching former President Jimmy Carter on a last-ditch diplomatic mission today in hopes of persuading the Caribbean nation's military dictators to leave peacefully.
Mr. Carter, who has become the Clinton administration's most prominent international trouble-shooter, was to be joined in his meetings this weekend by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There was no immediate reaction by Haitian's defiant military regime in Port-au-Prince. But administration officials said they have been told the delegation will be received.
The administration's top foreign policy officials insisted that the gambit does not signify a retreat from the U.S. position that nothing short of the resignation and departure from Haiti of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the regime's leader, and other generals will prevent a U.S.-led invasion.
"Nothing in this changes either the urgency of the situation or our willingness to act or the timetable of our military operation," a top White House official said. "We are prepared to discuss the means of departure, and that is all we're prepared to discuss."
The discussions would involve guarantees about the military leaders' assets, travel arrangements and destination.
Even so, the official said, "it would be wrong to assume" that General Cedras had already promised Mr. Carter that he would leave the country or order his followers not to fight.
The opportunity for a diplomatic way out was offered by Mr. Carter, who has been in recent contact with General Cedras and called Mr. Clinton within the past few days to suggest one last attempt to negotiate a settlement.
Mr. Clinton discussed the mission at least twice with each of three members of the diplomatic team, administration officials said last night. Some of these contacts took place before the president delivered his internationally televised ultimatum to the Cedras government Thursday night.
Departure of the high-powered trio was announced a day after Mr. Clinton's nationwide address on the Haiti crisis.
The speech was aimed at justifying an invasion to oust the Haitian dictators but failed to spark much public enthusiasm for a venture that would cost millions of dollars and possibly some American lives.
Polls taken immediately after the speech showed only a small boost in public support for military intervention, and many poll respondents said they believed that Mr. Clinton should seek approval from Congress first.
Calls to congressional offices and to a special line set up by The Sun were overwhelmingly opposed to a U.S. invasion.
"Clearly, the president is trying to do everything he possibly can to effect the departure of these brutal dictators peacefully," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and one of a minority of his colleagues prepared to reluctantly endorse an invasion as necessary to preserve U.S. credibility. "It's obvious he would much prefer not to have act militarily."
Even before the announcement of the Carter-led delegation, there were indications yesterday that the White House was still pursuing a peaceful resolution of the Haiti crisis, despite Mr. Clinton's message to the Haitian leaders Thursday that the "time is up."
In contact with Cedras
Defense Secretary William J. Perry disclosed earlier yesterday that the United States was still in contact with General Cedras about the possibility of averting an invasion.
"We continue to have discussions with Cedras and his envoys, and we continue to hope," Mr. Perry said.
"We haven't seen any definite indication that they're going to step down," he added. "We still hope. There's still time for them to step down."
Speaking at a White House gathering of representatives of the 24 nations backing the U.S.-led effort to restore Haiti's elected government, exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide promised he would not exact vengeance against followers of General Cedras if they would put down their arms.
"Stop the violence, do not be afraid," Father Aristide said in an appeal to members of the Haitian military.
"We say no to vengeance, no to retaliation. . . . The restoration of democracy will bring peace for all."
Aristide backs talks
Father Aristide approved of the last-minute diplomacy, but one of his key advisers was skeptical of the mission.
"We don't want any delay, that's for sure," said former Maryland Rep. Michael D. Barnes, an attorney representing the former Roman Catholic priest in his efforts to regain power.
"These guys have had three years, and every day they murder more people."
Father Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, was ousted in a military coup in 1991 after only seven months in office.
He passionately outlined yesterday his plans for rebuilding a nation so devastated by civil strife that "poverty" will be a step up from "misery."
Last night's dispatch of the diplomatic team represents the most significant U.S. outreach to the Haitian military since last spring, when Mr. Clinton adopted a tougher stance toward the Cedras regime in an effort to restore Father Aristide.
The trio is politically and philosophically well-balanced, but all three are known to be critical of the president's plan for invasion.
Mr. Carter, who defused a mounting crisis with North Korea earlier this year, has long held a deep interest in Haiti. A moderate Democrat generally loath to use force, Mr. Carter played a leading role in arranging Haiti's first democratic elections in 1990.
"He has a lot of standing in Haiti," a U.S. official said of Mr. Carter.
The addition of retired General Powell to the diplomatic team was a political coup for Mr. Clinton because of the military man's stature among Republicans, after serving promi- nently in two GOP administrations.
Republicans have been among the leading critics of U.S. military action in Haiti.
With his Jamaican heritage, General Powell also may have a special affinity for the Caribbean nation.
Senator Nunn, a conservative Southern Democrat and frequent Clinton critic on military issues, also brings impeccable political credentials to the effort.
All three will be persuasive if Mr. Clinton concludes military intervention cannot be avoided.
"If the three are turned down by Cedras, that will do an awful lot to convince the American people that we've left no stone unturned," a senior administration official observed.
As of last night, Mr. Clinton had not yet given the final order to launch the invasion, but Mr. Perry said, "We are ready. . . . The president could give the order at any time he cares to at this time."
U.S. forces in region
Twenty Navy and Marine Corps warships and their support vessels are in the waters around Haiti or headed that way. The aircraft carrier America arrived off Haiti yesterday. The command ship for the operation -- the USS Mount Whitney -- was expected to be in place by this weekend.
An invasion would be carried out by 20,000 U.S. troops, perhaps joined by a small number of foreign soldiers, Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Joe Gradisher said. The force would remove Haiti's military coup leaders from power and take over key facilities such as ports and airports.
Two dozen nations have promised more than 2,000 troops and other forces to back up U.S. forces and to act as a post-invasion police force.