WASHINGTON -- Operation Uphold Democracy is off to a shaky start in living up to its name.
U.S. forces failed to intervene the past two days as Haiti's military police beat back Haitians who were demonstrating in support of the return of the democratically elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Given that the troops are in Haiti to bring an end to brutality and restore Father Aristide, it was an embarrassing image, raising the question: Which side is the United States on?
"The task of keeping law and order in Haiti is the responsibility of the Haitian police force and the Haitian military . . . unless these demonstrations or this level of violence becomes so great that it threatens the overall stability and the security of our . . . forces," Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a briefing yesterday.
This stance has alarmed supporters of Father Aristide in the United States, who are demanding that the Haitian army and the paramilitary militias scattered about the Caribbean nation be speedily disarmed in preparation for his return.
"So far, what we have seen, tragically last evening, is Haitian citizens going out in the street to show support for the multinational force in Haiti, being beaten up by the same thugs, the same persons who President Clinton has called murderers, while the multinational force stands by," a lawyer for Father Aristide, Ira Kurzban, said in a television interview yesterday.
The exiled Haitian president himself has refused to endorse either the U.S. occupation or the agreement between the military dictators and the delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter that allowed U.S. troops to enter the country peacefully Monday.
Avoiding either subject in a statement yesterday, he focused on his commitment to upholding the 1993 Governors Island accords on which Haitian military leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras reneged.
More important than the reaction of the Aristide camp in Washington, continued violence against pro-democracy demonstrators could disillusion the impoverished masses in Haiti and lead them to question the purpose of the U.S. occupation.
"There could conceivably be a problem in perception," Army Col. Barry Willey, the U.S. military's top spokesman in Haiti, said at a ,, briefing yesterday in Port-au-Prince.
One perception is that the junta remains in charge and that the government it put in place is regarded as legitimate.
"I hope so that it's the government who is in charge," Haiti's de facto foreign minister, Charles David, said in an ABC-TV interview yesterday, noting that the military leaders have until either an amnesty law is passed by Parliament or Oct. 15 at the latest to step aside.
The purpose of ceding police functions to Haiti's military is to avoid putting U.S. forces at risk. Congress and the American people are generally opposed to the Haiti intervention to begin with, and unnecessary casualties would only inflame debate.
General Shalikashvili, who has been at pains to prepare the public for some inevitable casualties, said yesterday, "I have been from the very beginning of this operation very much concerned about getting our military men and women caught up in this Haitian-on-Haitian violence, that murky sort of a threat . . . that's always there."
The U.S. military hopes to avoid having to exert much muscle at least until its presence inside Haiti is large enough to intimidate and deter any troublemakers. Then it will be in a position to turn the tables on the Haitian army if General Cedras and his deputy, Brig Gen. Philippe Biamby, put up armed resistance as their departure date nears.
But this inaction has resulted in allowing abuse of Haitian civilians whose only offense is to demonstrate in support of the democracy that U.S. troops are upholding.
A senior U.S. official warned that an effort by U.S. soldiers to intervene in Haitian-on-Haitian violence could trigger a repeat of "the horrifying images from Somalia." There, the spectacle of slain U.S. servicemen being paraded through the streets produced such a storm of public and congressional criticism that the U.S. role was sharply curtailed.
"This U.S. mission [in Haiti] has very carefully described and limited objectives consistent with the view that you shouldn't overreach when it comes to defining the mission," said the official, who asked not to be named. "[U.S. forces] can't control every human rights abuse in Haiti."
If Washington forced U.S. troops to protect Haitian civilians at this point, that could result in "mission creep," or exceeding initial objectives.
The U.S. military's determined cooperation with General Cedras has left in doubt when there will be a serious effort to disarm the Haitian army, as called for in United Nations resolutions requiring it to be shrunk and retrained.
The U.S. forces plan to start buying back weapons in the hands of civilians and talk to General Cedras about disarming the paramilitary forces that support the military leaders. But they have not disclosed plans to disarm the army itself.
"That's not part of this particular operation now," Defense Secretary William J. Perry said Monday night on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
"That is going to be a question that comes up . . . at such time as the turnover occurs," he said, apparently referring to the departure of General Cedras.
But this delay may make it more difficult to persuade General Cedras and General Biamby that they have no choice but to quit on Oct. 15.
The Clinton administration hopes that the presence of U.S. firepower itself will be persuasive. But Mr. Clinton has yet to show that he is prepared to use that power instead of merely putting it on display.
And the longer disarmament takes, the harder it may be.