WASHINGTON -- In a cool autumn drizzle, President Clinton said farewell and good luck yesterday to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who heads home to Haiti today to resume his coup-interrupted presidency.
"You have survived decades of violence, terror and poverty with dignity, pride and hope," Mr. Clinton said, addressing Father Aristide and the people of Haiti. "Now, you and your people will have the opportunity to make democracy work for yourselves. . . . I say to you, bonne chance, ayeta toma -- good luck and long live Haiti!"
Father Aristide, who has spent the three years of his exile in Washington, smiled when he heard the familiar expression in French and Creole. The exiled Haitian president made a point of thanking the U.S. military units dispatched to Haiti -- and their families, some of whom were in attendance.
"A couple of weeks ago, I was very moved when I could see you and thank your sons working in Haiti, helping us," he said. "I thank each and every soldier in Haiti today who is working for democracy."
Turning to his host, Father Aristide added: "President Clinton, once again, the people of Haiti thank you for the leadership that you have demonstrated. You just said, 'Bonne chance, ayeta toma,' and we say, 'Thank you so much.' "
The two presidents were standing in front of the West Wing before an audience that included numerous African-American political luminaries. Among them were the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, who helped negotiate Father Aristide's peaceful return; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who plans to go to Haiti today; Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which made a priority of Haiti; and Randall Robinson, whose hunger strike over Haiti jolted the Clinton administration.
"To be here watching this unfold is quite emotional and quite moving," said Mr. Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat. "Many people thought this day would never come. It's really a miracle."
"Mr. Clinton," he added, "is to be commended."
These are welcome words at the White House. Positive outcomes in both Haiti and Iraq were celebrated this week by Democrats who hoped that his handling of the two crises would reverse the widespread image that Mr. Clinton is an indecisive or unskilled foreign policy president.
"I always thought he got a bad rub on this stuff -- I thought he showed tremendous leadership on Russia, in NAFTA, on all kinds of issues," Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said yesterday. "But there wasn't that sound bite, that single image you could point to on foreign policy. Now there is."
Public opinion surveys suggest that the public may be paying attention, as Mr. Clinton's approval ratings on foreign policy are improving.
White House strategists, though chary of talking in a partisan way about a foreign crisis that involves American troops, are hopeful that this bump will last through the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
DTC The president and his advisers, normally not shy about taking credit for their accomplishments, have been treading cautiously. The reason is that the crises are not yet over, and they remain aware of the grim possibilities of bloodshed in Haiti or war in Iraq.
Father Aristide did what he could yesterday to soothe their worries. He reiterated the words the American side wanted to hear: "Tomorrow, when we return home to Haiti, this will be our message to the nation: No to violence, no to vengeance, yes to reconciliation."
Yet even Mr. Robinson, a pro-Aristide stalwart, indicated that no one is certain that all will turn out well. Asked whether the Haitians would heed Father Aristide's call for nonviolence, he said, "If the Haitian people will listen to anyone, they will listen to President Aristide."
Senior Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos put it another way. Asked why top White House officials seemed so nervous when everything was going well, he replied: "So far it is. So far."