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Carter Successfully Convinces Clinton to Change Haiti Policy

By Ann Devroy
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

At 9 p.m Thursday, President Clinton explained to the American people why U.S. forces had to move immediately into Haiti. The country's dictators, led by Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, were "thugs" who had created a "nightmare of bloodshed," a "reign of terror."

By 9 a.m. Monday, some 84 nerve-racking hours later, Clinton stood by as former President Jimmy Carter, briefing congressional leaders at the White House on his mission to Haiti, offered a quite different view of Cedras: He was not a dictator, and to call him that was "plain wrong." Cedras had not led the coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide but had saved his life during the coup, Carter said. Forcing him into exile was wrong.

How Clinton - wanting to avoid a hugely unpopular and risky military invasion - came to accept Carter's view is much of the story of the last four days. Clinton ended up adjusting his policies in the face of Carter's arguments that he had misunderstood Cedras and the Haitian psyche. Over the course of more than 20 hours of negotiation between Haiti and Washington, the Clinton policy became Carterized, its edges rounded, its demands softened, its rhetoric muted.

And it produced, 30 minutes before a final deadline, an agreement sufficient to halt an invasion scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

What emerges from interviews and statements by participants describing the last four days is a portrait of Carter moving along one personal and policy track, and Clinton another, until the two merged after Clinton's address to the nation and the White House realization that a Carter mission was the last hope to avert an imminent violent confrontation with Haiti's military. Carter planted the seeds, he said in a lengthy interview with CNN Monday, with a memo to Clinton earlier this month and a conversation with him the day before the Thursday address.

"Carter called Clinton on Wednesday and said he had talked to Cedras and that Cedras' main concern, or a major concern, was not himself but that he could not leave his country and see it fall into civil war," a senior administration official said of the Wednesday talk. Carter, the official said, described Cedras' motivation as "not of a ruthless killer but of a military leader concerned with his country."

The White House policy until then was that a final "ultimatum" would be issued by a government official - perhaps the ambassador, perhaps national security adviser Tony Lake - on Friday or Saturday. Under the best circumstance, Cedras would accede and immediately leave the country, creating "a gap" between the departure and the arrival of American forces. Under the worst of circumstances, Cedras would be defiant and a full-scale military assault would occur.

Officials described Clinton as being concerned about this gap, about violence between the departure of the Haitian leaders and arrival of the invasion force. The senior levels of the administration, an official said, began then "rethinking our policy." The conclusion was that Cedras and his associates should remain in office until the U.S. military force came in, if Cedras could be gotten to agree.

On Thursday, as Clinton was attacking the Cedras-led military in the harshest of terms, officials said Carter was asked to set up a "conversation" among Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lake and Cedras to see if an "accommodation" on the transfer of power could be achieved with Cedras.

Administration officials said that Carter returned with the news that Cedras would not speak with any official of the United States government. Clinton decided then, despite sharp opposition from Secretary of State Warren Christoper, that Carter would be the envoy to Cedras, and that Cedras' immediate resignation and departure from the country would not be requirements.

In making the announcement, White House officials described the "genius" of adding retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to be Carter's partners. The White House did not say it was Carter's genius that produced the combination.

But - in one of several apparent contradictions between accounts by Carter and the White House - the former president said Monday that days before he offered to make the trip, he had obtained the agreement of the two to accompany him if Clinton approved.

Carter's mandate, Lake said Friday, was to negotiate the departure of Cedras and two key deputies in accordance with United Nations resolutions authorizing military force to restore Aristide. Officials said the scope was narrow and the timing tight: Get Cedras to understand he must leave and do it by noon on Sunday. A military action was imminent and its timing would not be changed to accommodate any desire by Carter to talk further.

But Carter had other ideas. "Although we were supposed to leave by Sunday noon, the matters were too complex to resolve that quickly," Carter said. Talking simply about the timing and manner of departure, Carter said, was interpreting the White House definition "too narrowly."

Over Saturday and Sunday, a virtual who's who of administration officials including Christopher and Secretary of Defense William J. Perry were publicly stating that Cedras and company had to leave power immediately and would leave the country.

Even after the deal was publicly announced, Christoper was saying publicly that Cedras and company would leave the country, but that this was not part of the public agreement to spare them humiliation. Asked how they knew, the official said Cedras had offered those assurances to Carter.

Carter Monday called that nonsense. No such assurances were sought or received, he said: "This was not part of the requirement." Cedras had to resign, Carter said, but "it is a serious violation of human rights for a citizen to be forced into exile."

Finding some middle ground between Cedras' agreeing to leave power and meeting the White House demand for a deadline for the resignation became the major sticking point. According to senior officials in Washington, Carter believed he could get past the date with an agreement that Cedras would step down after the Haitian Parliament approved amnesty for him and other military leaders.

The first draft of an agreement sent to the White House on Sunday morning, an official said, was "a downer." It did not have the fallback of a fixed date for resignation if the Parliament did not move; officials on all sides of the issue noted how wracked with divisions, absenteeism and other problems the Haitian Parliament was. Depending on it, one official said, "was worse than a copout."

Officials said Christopher, who had opposed the Carter mission at the outset as being too prone to lose control, too undisciplined and too unlikely to signal Clinton wavering, argued strenuously that a date was a must. For much of Sunday, Clinton and his top aides engaged in constant conversations with the delegation in Haiti to monitor results as the hours ticked away.

Clinton Monday said he had told Carter the mission could slide until 3 p.m. but no later. What he did not tell Carter directly was the timing of the military action - that night - and the need for him and his delegation to leave Port-au-Prince by nightfall or get caught in the crossfire. Aides described Clinton as "extraordinarily frustrated" with the hours ticking away and worrying that the safety of the delegation would end up driving his decision.

According to Clinton, with no agreement by 3 p.m. and with Perry pressing him that orders must be given to meet the schedule for invasion, the order to proceed was given. To the White House, the planes taking off from Polk Air Force Base in North Carolina was the final demonstration of Clinton's resolve, which in the final minutes caused Cedras to give in and agree to a fixed date for resignation.

To Carter, however, the planes' takeoff almost soured the deal. He described Cedras' deputy, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, entering the talks with information he said was from "Haitian Americans" that the invasion had begun and the talks must end so military resistance could be prepared.

"I was distressed about it," Carter said, fearing it would end any hope for an agreement. After further haggling, he said, the negotiators agreed to move to a more sure location - into the offices of military-installed President Emile Jonassaint - where they got assurances the military action could be called off if the agreement was reached quickly.