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Cedras as Chameleon

THE United States walks a precipice in Haiti.

The lives of US troops are under the command of a president with suspect foreign-policy credentials. He has acted without the support of Congress and most Americans. He has failed to clearly define the objective in such a way as to convince either constituency that intervention was merited or achievable.

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On the ground, the situation remains murky and tense, as the US tries to implement a quickly redefined role as a peacekeeper. But newly arrived US military police who will patrol alongside Haitian forces, a loosening of the ``rules of engagement,'' warnings from President Clinton that brutality against civilians will not be tolerated, and Lt. Gen. Raul Cedras's agreement to (try to) comply should greatly reduce the kind of Haitian police thuggery that has so shocked and angered Americans.

Equally troubling is General Cedras's announcement that he will not leave the island. The accord made with ex-President Carter's delegation does not require it.

This promises mischief. Is Cedras attempting a political metamorphosis, begun by the ``honorable'' treatment he received as the price of the Carter accord? His apparent cooperation with US forces and friendly manner in his interview on CBS TV seem designed to reshape his image.

Meanwhile, efforts are under way to discredit President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by those who have never favored US intervention in Haiti and who wish to embarrass Mr. Clinton. These portray Mr. Aristide as a Marxist, weak, mentally unstable, or an advocate of violence.

The incredible could happen. In the coming weeks Cedras may look more and more like the leader best capable of restoring order and allowing US troops to retreat from Haitian soil as quickly as possible.

To counter this, Aristide must act as master of his own future. Despite his discomfort with the Carter deal, he must step forward strongly now and take action as the legitimate Haitian leader. His efforts to put a transition team in place are one step.

The Clinton administration must continue its total support for Aristide. And it must remind Americans of the junta's illegal actions and atrocities that led to this military presence.

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President Aristide may not be the choice American voters would make. But he is the choice of the Haitian people; that democratic principle, not the person of Aristide, is what the Haiti intervention is all about.

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