WASHINGTON – A decade ago, President Clinton dispatched 20,000 troops to help restore democracy in Haiti during a political crisis there. A repeat performance is highly unlikely this year, officials say, even though Haiti is once again bordering on chaos.
For one thing, in 1994 there was an elected president-in-waiting, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search), ready to replace the military junta that had deposed him three years earlier.
Haitians were eager to have him back, and there was joy on the streets when Aristide flew back to Port-au-Prince (search) a month after the U.S. military forced out the coup regime.
Aristide is president again but much of his support has frittered away in the face of accusations that elections were rigged in 2000 and that he has violently suppressed dissent and allowed corruption to flourish while the populace suffers.
If the United States orchestrated his removal it would be a matter of replacing an elected president with someone who had no claim at all to lead the country. This, officials note, would hardly qualify as striking a blow for democracy.
So for now the administration policy is to stick with Aristide for lack of a credible alternative, and push for a political solution to the armed rebellion that is sweeping through Haiti.
"There is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday.
In 1994, Clinton was under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus (search) to reinstate Aristide. Clinton also had a mandate from the U.N. Security Council (search) to use all means necessary to achieve that result.
A U.S. economic embargo, while failing to force out the military government, was causing Haitians even more hardship than usual. Also, there were 14,000 Haitian refugees being housed at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba.
The U.S. military wanted the Haitians repatriated but could do so only if the repressive regime they had fled was deposed and the elected government reinstalled.
Many supported the U.S. invasion because of the sinister nature of the regime led by Gen. Raoul Cedras and his colleagues. They were believed responsible for the deaths of thousands.
None of these elements are present these days.
Among the congressional dissenters a decade ago was Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. "Aristide may have won an election, but he's not likely to win a medal for promoting true democracy," Helms thundered on the eve of the invasion.
Nowadays, many in the administration -- and in Haiti -- would agree with Helms.
Aristide's government has accomplished little but, then again, he has received minimal support from Washington, which contends that he has violated democratic norms. Assistance from the United States and other donor countries has been limited in recent years to food and other forms of humanitarian aid.
"They've cut off aid to the government and starved them of resources," says James Dobbins, a former State Department Haiti expert. "They've gone to the opposite extreme of the Clinton administration."
Dobbins believes it was a mistake for the 15-nation Caribbean Community (search), and not the United States, to captain the international mediation effort in Haiti.
It might have made a big difference, he said, if the administration had sent an experienced negotiator to Haiti armed with a proposal for a political solution on which both Democrats and Republicans could agree. As things stand, there is no end in sight to the Haiti crisis.
While the administration generally is leaving the diplomacy to others, it knows that a sudden refugee surge from Haiti could be a political land mine.
Jimmy Carter is an authority on that subject. Between April and September of 1980, the Carter White House allowed 125,000 Cuban refugees to land in Florida. Carter was blamed for arrival of so many unwelcome visitors, and Ronald Reagan won the state handily that November.
And many analysts believe Clinton lost his bid for re-election as Arkansas governor in 1980 because a number of Cuban refugees were sent to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, where some rioted. He won back the governorship in 1982.
The Bush White House, not surprisingly, wants disgruntled Haitians to stay put and not flee to Florida, especially in this election year. As the presidential balloting in 2000 showed, how Floridians vote is no small matter.