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Administration Determined to Send U.S. Forces to Haiti

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

With preparations for a U.S. military operation in Haiti under way in several government agencies, the Clinton administration now insists it is unequivocally committed to sending troops to help engineer a change of government there, either peacefully or by force.

After weeks of cautioning that President Clinton has not made a final decision to send U.S. forces, several senior officials said yesterday that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch '61 meant exactly what they said when they told reporters Wednesday that troops will definitely go to Haiti whether or not the military government there steps aside.

If the transition is peaceful, U.S. troops will form a large part of an international force protecting the restored government of exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. If the Haitian generals won't step down voluntarily, the United States will invade, officials say, with indications that such action would take place next month.

It is of course possible that the escalating U.S. language and preparations for training troops from Caribbean countries to participate in a possible invasion force are just an elaborate public relations gesture aimed at persuading the military government to leave Haiti. But if that effort fails, the administration's public posture leaves little room for backing down without risking ridicule and a further erosion of its credibility in foreign policy.

Clinton, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and the secretaries of State and Defense are all on vacation, and no one was saying yesterday that the president has actually signed off on invasion orders. But there has been a distinct change in the text and tone of administration statements about Haiti this week, and officials who normally would have expressed caution said a troop deployment is a virtual certainty.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers used a familar formulation Thursday: "It is time to restore democracy to Haiti."

But the key language, officials said, was in Wednesday's press briefing by Talbott and Deutch. Deutch said flatly that "the multinational force is going to Haiti." Talbott said "When the multinational force goes in" - not "if" it goes in.

Their comments reflect the administration's view that it has all the ducks it needs in a neat row: United Nations authorization to use "all necessary means" to restore Aristide, commitments from several Caribbean nations to provide at least token participants in an ostensibly international force, and at least tacit consent from enough key members of Congress to make a military deployment politically feasible.

If an invasion takes place, current signals point to a date in early to mid-October. Defense Department spokesman Dennis Boxx said yesterday that training of the 266 troops to be contributed to an invasion force by Caribbean countries would begin in Puerto Rico within two weeks, and the training would take a couple of weeks more. A State Department official said the plan is to have the troops in place and Aristide back in Port-au-Prince in time to proceed with scheduled parliamentary elections in November.

Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has told the administration that he does not believe congressional approval is required in advance of sending troops, according to an aide. That does not mean a majority of congress favors an invasion, officials said, but it means the administration is free to act.

Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., however, again opposed any invasion, asserting in a statement Thursday that "risking American lives to restore Aristide to power is not in America's interest."

While the administration would of course prefer that the military government headed by Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras depart voluntarily, the outcome will be the same either way, a State Department official said yesterday: Aristide will return to Haiti, and reconstruction of Haiti's civil institutions and economy will begin, under the protection of a U.S.-led international force.

"We are going," another senior State Department official said. "It's just important that you understand who we' are." If force is required to oust Cedras, he said, U.S. troops will lead the invasion force and stay in Haiti long enough to enable Aristide to return safely. The United States would then turn over to the United Nations responsibility for the "nation-building" phase of the operation, while continuing to participate in a U.N. peacekeeping force.