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Congress Could Play Valuable Role on Haiti

Let Capitol Hill hearings and research act as a public sounding board and uncover lessons learned

UNITED States policy in Haiti has been characterized by twisting, turning, and hand wringing. It is more a series of improvisations than a calculated action. It should have evolved to preserve as broad a range of options as possible. Instead, it lurched along in such a way as to narrow the options.

What is wrong with the policy is at least as much in the process as in the substance. Haiti is one of those problems with no good solutions. This makes a broad base of support all the more important. Such a base is constructed by widening the policymaking circle at an early stage to include Congress, knowledgeable private citizens, and the general public.

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Most presidents, including Mr. Clinton, are reluctant to do this. It's a lot of trouble to deal with outsiders - a group the White House usually defines as including members of Congress - and there might be bothersome naysayers. So presidents plunge ahead on their own and frequently regret it. Clinton has plunged ahead; time will tell whether he later regrets it.

Give the administration credit. It did try to bring in Congress. There were numerous briefings and consultations in both the House and Senate. The trouble was that the administration did not pay attention to the feedback, which ranged from skeptical to negative. Like many of his predecessors, Clinton was so sure he was right that he did it anyway.

This is not a question of legal or constitutional authority. It is a question of political wisdom. When a president acts with congressional support, he is in a stronger position to defend himself if an operation goes sour. Without Congress, he is defenseless against a political onslaught.

In the Haiti case, Congress did not try seriously to stop Clinton. There is not much it could have done short of restricting funds for an invasion, an extreme remedy. Now that troops are in Haiti, Congress is fussing about when to bring them home and what their mission should be until then.

But Congress also has a role as both a leader of, and a sounding board for, public opinion. There needs to be more public discussion of the problems underlying our difficulties in Haiti. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees could contribute to such discussion through hearings with prestigious nongovernmental witnesses. The list should include former government officials, academics, and businesspeople with experience in Haiti.

THE same committees could also advance our understanding of the problem by making a detailed study of the policy process. A case history of how not to do it would be an invaluable guide for future policymakers. Among the questions such a study ought to address are the following:

* Why did the administration so badly misjudge the character of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his colleagues? Ever-tighter economic sanctions did not drive them from power but ruined the country instead. What were intelligence estimates saying about Haiti in general and General Cedras in particular? What was the US State Department reporting from its embassy in Port-au-Prince? Was the intelligence community wrong, or did the administration not listen to what the community was saying?

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* What were, and are, we trying to do in Haiti? Sometimes the objective has been presented as grandiose (nation-building); sometimes it has been limited (reversing a military coup dtat); sometimes it has been parochial (reducing Haitian immigration). There ought to be a clear consensus about purpose.

There also needs to be more discussion of what seems to be a growing interest in the administration in letting powers conduct interventionist policies in nearby countries.

Examples include France in Rwanda (and elsewhere in Africa perhaps), Russia in the former republics of the Soviet Union, and the US in Haiti (and maybe elsewhere in the Caribbean and Central America). This sounds alarmingly like the old spheres of influence that most people thought to be out of fashion. It needs thorough ventilation.

Finally, what are US troops going to do now that they are in Haiti? After some hesitation, they avoided the mistake we made in Somalia and began to disarm the population. What do they do next? What if the Haitians start fighting each other with sticks and stones?

It is unrealistic to think a new Haitian police force can be trained in any reasonable time frame (like less than a generation). Self-restraint is only one element in a humane police force. Equally important are external constraints in the country's political and judicial system. These do not exist in Haiti, nor is there any good prospect of them.

It has been said that there are two kinds of governments: those that muddle through and those that mess up. The Clinton administration has done both in Haiti. Sober congressional review of how that happened could help minimize the mess. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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