Now that American troops have entered an open door to Haiti instead of having to kick it in, two questions need to be settled and settled fast: When does President Jean-Bertrand Aristide return to his country? When does Gen. Raoul Cedras leave?
The Sunday night agreement to avert a military invasion, only minutes before it was to begin, failed to mention either of these principal players in the Haitian drama. At this stage, President Clinton doesn't even know if General Cedras will leave. And the silence of Mr. Aristide is ominous, especially when one considers his prickly past behavior and the assertion of his attorney, former Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes, that the U.S.-Haitian accord is "highly imperfect."
While Americans are relieved that U.S. armed forces did not have to suffer casualties in moving into Haiti, the vicious cross-currents in Haitian society make their assignment most dangerous.
The last time the Marines landed, in 1915, they stayed for 19 years. This time the administration hopes to turn matters over to a United Nations peace-keeping operation (half staffed by Americans) in a matter of months. But don't count on it. As former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said yesterday: "The problem we have got is we have inherited Haiti. . . In a sense, we've kind of entered a new era of colonialism."
If this is the case, it explains in part why most Americans opposed armed intervention and are decidedly uneasy that our forces are in Haiti even on what the Pentagon calls a "permissive" basis. After the sour experience in Somalia, this country is unlikely to have its head turned by the joyful welcome given the first troops or the initial businesslike talks between U.S. military commanders and the Cedras clique. Too well remembered is the gunfire that followed the flowers in Somalia.
Very soon, U.S. forces will have to face the task of trying to disarm or buy the weapons of the various para-military factions that abound in Haiti. This very tough mission will have to be carried out with the Haitian forces still intact, the negotiations seeking General Cedras' departure tied to his pledge to give up power Oct. 15 and President Aristide's followers being whipped up to be suspicious of the whole arrangement. In such a vacuum of authority, the U.S. will have to act as a force for law and order to prevent Haitian-on-Haitian violence.
No nonsense should be the touchstone of U.S. policy in Haiti from this day onward. Mr. Clinton should make it clear to Messrs. Aristide and Cedras that no nonsense will be tolerated from either. The general should be pushed into exile, whether he likes it or not, and the president should return from exile not when he wishes but when it is safest for U.S. troops and the success of this mission to create a democratic Haiti.
Yes, we have "inherited" Haiti, and with it the cost in hundreds of millions of dollars of putting it on wobbly feet. But after a decent interval (not 19 years), let us "disinherit" with honor.