Ever since the United States declared its hegemony in the Americas with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, its policy toward the nations of the Caribbean has lacked two things: consistency and variety.
That is only one of its problems.
Another, according to many with experience in the region, is that this policy is often built on ignorance.
"We don't know much about these countries," said Lawrence Pezzullo, President Clinton's former special envoy to Haiti.
Mr. Pezzullo explained that because U.S. policy has been so Europe-directed since the end of World War II, "once you get out of the Atlantic corridor the ignorance is profound. You find that about Haiti today. You found that about Central America a decade ago."
As the U.S. intervention in Haiti plays itself out, one knows this has happened before in that part of the world, more times than most people can remember.
U.S. interventions in the Caribbean increased following the Spanish-American War, in 1898. It proved profitable.
Puerto Rico fell to the United States as a result of that war. Shortly afterward, Panama, a breakaway province of Colombia, was "persuaded" to yield territory "in perpetuity" to the United States for the building of the inter-oceanic canal.
For one reason or another, U.S. troops were sent into Cuba in 1906, 1911 and 1917; into the Dominican Republic in 1905 and 1916; into Nicaragua in 1912. Sometimes they quickly withdrew, sometimes they stayed.
Haiti was last occupied by the Marines in 1915. They remained 19 years.
No one can say how long they will stay this time.
Sometimes it was called Gunboat Diplomacy; sometimes Dollar Diplomacy. Justifications derived from the Monroe Doctrine and President Theodore Roosevelt's corollary to it under which the United States asserted the right to regulate the behavior of its neighbors.
Woodrow Wilson used the Roosevelt Corollary to justify the takeover of Haiti in 1915.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to implement a less militaristic approach to Latin America and the Caribbean, the Good Neighbor Policy. FDR took the Marines out of Haiti. He promised no more unilateral invasions.
After World War II, Cold War obsessions set the tone. New interventions occurred: a covert one against a reformist president of Guatemala in 1954, and the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
Embarrassed by the failure of that action, President John F. Kennedy tried the friendlier, Rooseveltian approach with his Alliance for Progress. But after his death, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, went back to the old ways. He invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965.
President Johnson was faithful to one of FDR's pledges when he intervened in the Dominican Republic. He engineered participation by several other Latin American countries in the invasion. Since then, U.S. presidents have usually sought at least a semblance of international support for their forays, with mixed results. President Clinton had pledges of participation by three of the Caribbean's micro-states and political support from the United Nations, although the occupation will be almost entirely a U.S. show.
President Jimmy Carter brought back the softer touch. He didn't invade anywhere.
Ronald Reagan, his successor, involved this country in three wars in Central America. He invaded the island of Grenada. His successor, George Bush, invaded Panama. For that he was censured by both the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Thus, during this century the nations of the Caribbean have been exposed to a Good Cop-Bad Cop implementation of policy, more often the latter than the former.
When it comes to the Caribbean, some presidents, but not all, seem like swimmers caught by a historical riptide that pulls them back toward that rougher age of the freebooters and pirates who once dominated the islands and lands bordering the Caribbean Sea. The only thing that seems to change is the justification.
President Clinton's aim is to restore the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president who was ousted by the military.
Three decades ago President Lyndon B. Johnson invaded Haiti's neighbor, the Dominican Republic, for precisely the opposite reason: to prevent the restoration of democratically elected President Juan Bosch.
Mark Szuchman, an historian on Latin America at Florida International University, believes Mr. Clinton acted in the grip of archaic impulses. "I'm not sure we have ever let go of the idea of the sphere of influence. It's an old term, usually associated with the world wars," he said.
Mr. Pezzullo used the word "hegemony."
U.S. leaders, he said, are drawn into the Caribbean not only by the circumstances of this conflict or that, which they don't usually understand, but their reactions are conditioned by the proximity of these countries.
"American leaders in Washington feel they have a tutorial responsibility, that since it is our area of hegemony we should be doing something. And if they don't do something they are faulted by their critics."
President Clinton, he said, was a man trapped into prosecuting an extremist policy because he failed to seize upon better options earlier.
"There is no way to govern that country," he said. "Aristide has not got the support of the Parliament or among the people. We're going to have a major problem with Aristide."
Most of the experts consulted for this article believe Mr. Clinton had purposes other than the restoration of Father Aristide and cultivation of democracy in Haiti.
Mr. Szuchman said he believes Mr. Clinton is trying to regain his credibility, lost by irresolution in Bosnia and Somalia.
Ronald Cox, a political scientist and author of "Power and Profits: U.S. Policy in Central America," has a different interpretation of Mr. Clinton's motives.
Although Mr. Clinton wants to improve his image and discourage the flow of Haitian refugees, his main aim is to restore a president -- Father Aristide -- who has been persuaded by U.S. policy-makers to shrink the Haitian state's involvement in the economy, make it more export-oriented, and and make it more open to U.S. firms.
"The military did not do this," said Mr. Cox. "It has maintained an overly high taxation policy. It controls a number of key monopolies. . . . The state is interfering with the broad logic of this U.S.-supported liberalization program for the Caribbean."