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Congress Uncertain of U.S. Role in Restoring Democracy

By Kevin Merida
The Washington Post

Though many lawmakers are revulsed by reports of mutilated bodies of supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide piling up in Haiti, Congress appears deeply conflicted over what role the United States should play in restoring democracy to the Caribbean nation.

A growing number of liberal Democrats have become convinced that the only way to dislodge Haiti's military command is with force. Other lawmakers - mostly moderates and conservatives - have rebelled against that option, saying military action would lead to a long period of occupation and would not accomplish the goal of making Haiti democratic.

Still others are hoping that more comprehensive economic sanctions will cripple Haiti's military junta and head off what is becoming an increasingly divisive political issue in the United States - especially the practice of interdicting fleeing Haitians at sea and returning them home.

Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., typified many members who are struggling with the stalemate that has kept Aristide in exile since September 1991. "I don't have a solution for Haiti," he said Thursday.

President Clinton, amid mounting criticism of his Haitian policy from liberal allies, said for the first time this week that he would not rule out military intervention.

Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said Thursday that he, too, is willing to consider force as an option, but stressed that Congress should receive "a thorough consultation" beforehand. The question, Foley said, is: "What is the exit strategy if U.S. forces were engaged in Haiti?"

At this point, few lawmakers believe either house would approve military action if Congress were to debate the issue. This sentiment is perhaps strongest in the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., oppose committing U.S. troops to Haiti.

In a floor speech Thursday, Dole called for a bipartisan "fact-finding commission" - appointed by the president and congressional leadership - to take "a fresh look at the situation in Haiti." He said tightening economic sanctions - as the Clinton administration proposed this week at the United Nations - would only increase suffering among the poor while the military command prospers from the black market.

Dole and others also noted that U.S. military intervention had been tried by President Wilson in 1915 during a period of widespread unrest in Haiti. The U.S. force withdrew in 1934.

"I think of no one who believes Haiti is better for the experience," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Others, however, believe a case can be made for quick and decisive military action that would not require congressional approval.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said Clinton needs first to outline clearly to the American people why Haiti affects U.S. national interests. He noted that President Bush approved an invasion of Panama in 1989 without first going to Congress and that President Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada without congressional approval in 1983.

"We justified an attack on Grenada to protect 600 medical students," said Graham. "We have 9,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti."

Some Democrats have begun trying to turn up the heat on the administration through acts of civil disobedience. Reps. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., Nydia M. Velazquez, D-Fla., and Maxine Waters, D-Calif., were arrested in front of the White House Thursday for demonstrating without a permit. It was the second such protest in the last two weeks.

"We should stabilize Haiti or we'll have to stabilize Haitians in Miami, Washington and elsewhere," said Hastings, who favors using force. "It's different from Bosnia. The folk aren't leaving Bosnia and coming here. Haitians are leaving and coming to Florida, and it affects our schools, our hospitals, our jails. And we the taxpayers wind up paying for that locally."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., have introduced companion bills that call for a complete trade embargo on Haiti - with the exception of food and medicine - a freeze on the assets of military and police officers, a ban on all commercial flights and mandatory sanctions on third-party countries that ignore the embargo.

"We haven't really tried any sanctions or an embargo," said Dodd. "It is really nonexistent in Haiti. It may take four or five months to work. But all this talk about military action, it won't be necessary."