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NPR Commentary -- September 16, 1994

The Haitian Surprise

by James Fallows

Although the element of surprise is now gone from the Haitian operation, we should not overlook how extraordinary this moment is.

For the first time in modern history, a president is committing U.S. force knowing that most of the public opposes the action and that the Congress is so skeptical that he dare not ask for a vote.

When presidents have committed force at other times in this century, they've either been responding to emergencies, such as the outbreak of the Korean War, or they've enjoyed initial public acceptance of their plans. Even efforts that later became unpopular, including the war in Vietnam, were largely supported in their early days.

Unfortunately, the real reasons for this exceptional action are ones Mr. Clinton seems uncomfortable emphasizing. The President devoted most of his speech to the noblest-sounding but least convincing reasons for intervention. The cruelty of today's Haiti is terrible, as the President said. But all of his listeners know that misery by itself has never drawn U.S. troops, not in Rwanda this year nor in the Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier 30 years ago. "Restoring democratic government" to Haiti would be admirable, but even the President must wonder how likely this is. The most excruciating moment of the speech was its idealistic ending, in which the President likened the Haitians' need for help in building democracy to that of the American colonists when fighting King George. He failed to mention that by 1776 the colonists had a century of legislative tradition behind them -- or that the foreign powers that intervened then did so mainly in hopes of hurting England.

The strongest potential arguments for action were ones Mr. Clinton snuck into in the middle of his speech. They are, first, that in Haiti, unlike Rwanda, the U.S. clearly has the power to remove tyrants, and second that America has placed so much emphasis on this problem that it can no longer afford to wash its hands. The more the President can express such inglorious but realistic justifications, the more honest the debate will be.

In 1965, when Lyndon Johnson sent fresh troops to Vietnam, he was said to have "crossed the Rubicon" about involvement in that war. Last night President Clinton crossed the Rubicon, in a political and character sense. His worst critics have charged that the President believes in nothing, will compromise on anything, that he wants only to please. Yet this man is now launching an effort that most Americans oppose, in which some Americans will die -- because, he tells us, it is right.

Americans may disagree, as I do, with what the President has chosen to stand for. We have learned that he will stand for something.

Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.
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