WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, looking grim and referring to himself as the commander in chief, sounded ready to go to war Thursday night as he explained why an American military force was poised to enter Haiti.
In hindsight, however, a little-noticed, last-minute word change in his nationally televised address offered a clue that Mr. Clinton had one more gambit to offer.
Gone was the assertion, released in advance excerpts, that the United States had "exhausted diplomacy." Instead, when Mr. Clinton actually spoke, he used a milder expression, saying, "We and other nations have worked exhaustively to find a diplomatic solution."
The reason for the change became clear the next day. Overriding the misgivings of some of his own advisers, Mr. Clinton launched a 72-hour high-wire diplomatic act, while the U.S.-led invasion force bobbed menacingly off the shores of Haiti, awaiting orders.
For several days leading up to Thursday's speech, Mr. Clinton had seriously mulled an endgame negotiating mission by former President Jimmy Carter as a way of going an extra step to avoid a military confrontation with Haiti's three-man military dictatorship.
L The choice of Mr. Carter had obvious benefits and drawbacks.
A frequent traveler to Haiti who knew many of its government and economic leaders, the former president had also played a key role in monitoring the 1990 election won by the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic and volatile Roman Catholic priest ousted in a coup nine months later.
In recent weeks, he had been in regular contact with Haitian army leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and relayed his impressions to the White House, reportedly along with a plea that he be 'allowed to give peace one last chance.
A skilled and tireless negotiator, Mr. Carter showed how relentless he could be in pursuit of a deal in 1978, when he brokered a historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, considered by many the greatest achievement of his presidency.
But those same qualities posed dangers. The statesman of Camp David is nobody's messenger. After he won Mr. Clinton's blessing to negotiate with North Korea's Kim Il-Sung about his country's nuclear weapons program earlier this year, Mr. Carter publicly embarrassed the Clinton administration by brazenly criticizing its plans to seek United Nations sanctions against the Communist regime.
Returning home soon afterward, Mr. Carter expansively -- and prematurely -- claimed that the deal he had cut had ended the crisis.
The Haiti mission, though perhaps of less long-term significance to U.S. security, was vastly more urgent because of the thousands of American lives that would be at risk in an invasion.
"I'm holding my breath," one ranking U.S. official had said over the weekend.
The addition of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell and Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, both famously cautious men, added heft and restraint to the diplomatic mission, as did the presence of a number of White House, State Department and Pentagon aides.
General Powell, with a Caribbean family background, could speak of the coming invasion in language the Haitian military could understand. Mr. Nunn could describe how, once military hostilities begin, U.S. domestic opposition and political catcalls tend to dissipate.
From Mr. Carter's arrival in Port-au-Prince at mid-day Saturday onward, it was clear he would not limit himself to talking about how the leaders could transport themselves out of Haiti.
'A lot of issues'
In fact, as a senior administration official noted shortly even before the Carter team arrived in Haiti, "the way in which they [the Haitian dictators] would depart is not a simple thing. There are a lot of issues involved."
One was whether the Haitian military leaders actually had to leave the country, and if so for how long.
The 1993 agreement under which Father Aristide was supposed to return to power and a U.N. resolution last spring simply required that they give up power, although senior administration officials contended that "as a practical matter" they could not stay in Haiti.
Another was each of the Haitian military leaders' fears of possible retribution from the other two if he were seen to cave in first. A third factor involved what would happen to the rest of the clique-ridden Haitian military if it were suddenly severed from its leadership.
Once in Haiti, Mr. Carter did not confine himself to dealing solely with the military troika. He announced that he would emphasize "a peaceful resolution working with the leaders of Haiti," and by ,, Saturday night had played host to a range of civilian government and business leaders at the U.S. delegation's hillside hotel, the Villa Creole.
All day he and others on his team were in touch with the White House by secure telephone. Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, served as the main go-between.
Adding to the high-stakes tension of the negotiations was a caustic, politically charged debate back in the United States that compressed into a matter of hours the cross-fire of objections and counter-arguments that took weeks to air during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis.
Even as Mr. Carter was en route to Haiti and a flotilla of U.S. ships were on the horizon, Republicans fired a fusillade in a radio address by Rep. Robert L. Livingston Jr. of Louisiana, who charged that Father Aristide, the man Mr. Clinton was willing to go to war to reinstall, is "a radical leftist who has spewed anti-American venom for years" and has shown "brutal dictatorial tendencies of his own."
A trio of GOP presidential aspirants -- all former members of President George Bush's Cabinet -- former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III took up the cry as the weekend progressed.
"We'll be there for a long time. It's nation-building," Mr. Quayle charged.
Mr. Cheney, who asserted that Haiti deserved at best a low priority, said the impending action was "the culmination of months of foreign-policy miscues by the administration," adding that "what we're doing is staking American lives on having to reassert, or reaffirm if you will, the president's personal credibility."
Mr. Baker charged that Mr. Clinton had not exhausted all nonmilitary options; specifically, he had avoided launching a covert operation to destabilize the regime until three weeks ago.
Almost as he spoke, the Port-au-Prince diplomacy stalled.
Briefing Father Aristide by phone in Washington at midday yesterday, Mr. Lake and William H. Gray III, the president's adviser on Haiti, told him that the military trio in Haiti had presented unacceptable conditions for their departure. Father Aristide was not asked for a response.
But the talks resumed. Scrapping tentative plans to leave Haiti by early afternoon, Mr. Carter and his delegation pressed the negotiations at Haiti's military headquarters for six hours, then crossed the street to the presidential palace, presumably to involve figurehead President Emile Jonaissant.
At the White House, aides hustling along the covered walkway connecting the White House residence to West Wing offices seemed tired but upbeat. Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state, paused long enough to ask a reporter about the Redskins game. Mr. Gray, a former congressman from Philadelphia, inquired about the Eagles.
Shortly after 8:30 p.m. last night, Mr. Carter and company boarded their blue-and-white Air Force Boeing 707 for their return flight from Haiti.
And Mr. Clinton prepared to go on the air at 9:30 p.m. -- three days after his last TV address -- to announce that the invasion had been put on hold.