How Did We Get Here?

Almost nobody wanted a showdown. Not Congress: Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell all but shut down business last week for fear that any bill that came to a vote would have a rider tacked on it opposing the use of U.S. troops in Haiti. Not the electorate: most polls found that a clear majority opposed sending in the 20,000-member expeditionary force assembled off Haiti. Not the Pentagon: planners considered invading the tiny wreck of a nation ridiculous and the inevitable occupation a potential disaster. Not even the Congressional Black Caucus, which had pushed for a harder line on Haiti; half its members opposed a strike. The president stood all but alone when he listed the reasons U.S. troops would storm ashore unless the military junta that rules Haiti agreed to go into exile. "Your time is up," Clinton warned the junta in a nationwide address from the Oval Office. But he might just as well have been speaking about himself. He was pretty much out of options.

Whatever the outcome, it was a strange way for a superpower to do business. If so many of the country's leaders were against going to war in Haiti, how did Clinton get to that point? A team of Newsweek reporters pieced together the inside story of how Clinton stumbled into a showdown over Haiti. Their reporting paints a picture of a runaway policy, pushed by a small group of activists in and out of the White House; Congress was barely consulted, and by the time the president was fully engaged, there was no turning back.

Paradoxically, Haiti's very insignificance helped provoke the crisis. Like a lot of people in Washington, Clinton wasn't always tuned in to the implications of his evolving Haiti policy. He had a heavy legislative agenda -- the budget, the crime bill, health care. And other foreign-policy issues cried out for his time and energy. But a small group of people in Washington cared a lot about Haiti. The deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, saw that Haitian boat people could buy him his ticket home. And by appealing to the president's humanitarian instincts, liberal activists eventually reversed Clinton's pragmatic decision to send Haiti's refugees home. It was a reversal that would set off a chain of unforeseen consequences -- and ultimately push the country to the brink of an invasion.

Clinton's zigzag Haiti policy came to be dominated by a group of moralists who form a liberal web knotted together during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. They all speak the same language, the Carteresque "human rights first" policy. All hated the Central American policy of the 1980s. And they have no real feel for politics. There isn't a single former elected official among them, nor any political constituency on which they can depend. And, because Clinton eventually got the Pentagon he wanted -- led by technocrats with no powerful say in policy -- nobody was there to counterbalance the Haiti hawks.

Clinton worked himself into a box on Haiti. For such a consummate politician, it was a remarkable performance. Until last week, the administration had barely appealed to the public for support. But Clinton had already put his credibility on the line.

At first, clinton thought he had something to gain from Haiti. Behind that judgment was Anthony Lake, who became Clinton's national-security adviser. During the 1992 campaign, Lake persuaded Clinton to oppose George Bush's policy of returning fleeing Haitian boat people, arguing that the policy was inhumane and morally wrong. An Africa specialist, Lake is imbued with Yankee guilt. Haiti was his kind of cause. "This is Tony's war," said one critic outside the administration last week. "He finally is able to do something he devoutly believes in."

Right from the start, the moralist position caused Clinton problems. Even before the Inauguration, the president-elect had to tack. As many as 200,000 Haitians were ready to flee by boat, estimated coast guard analysts who counted the boats being built on Haitian beaches, and Clinton couldn't afford politically to have them hit Florida. So he announced that the Bush repatriation policy would remain in effect. He would pursue a policy of negotiations and, if necessary, stiffer and stiffer sanctions. But by then some damage was already done: Clinton had elevated Haiti to prominence on the agenda.

Haiti was overshadowed by Bosnia for the first months of Clinton's term. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Lake passionately wanted the United States to use force to stop the atrocities. Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued against it. Somalia, where Bush had deployed U.S. troops on a humanitarian mission, also was a priority. Haiti policy was being quietly managed by Lawrence Pezzullo, a blunt-spoken career Foreign Service officer, and Samuel (Sandy) Berger, Lake's deputy.

Soon Pezzullo's efforts to get concessions from both Aristide and the Haitian coup leaders seemed to pay off. On July 3, less than two weeks after the United Nations Security Council imposed an oil and arms embargo and an assets freeze against Haiti, junta leader Raoul Cedras agreed to step down. Under terms of the accord, signed on Governors Island in New York Harbor, Aristide would return by Oct. 30 under the protection of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

The deal may have been doomed from the start. Newsweek has learned that intelligence officials who listened to both sides' communications told Clinton and his advisers that both Cedras and Aristide had signed in bad faith, hoping that the other would reject the deal first. By the fall, Cedras must also have realized that the Clinton administration was in no position to slap him down. The U.S. humanitarian mission in Somalia, ordered by Bush, had gone sour. On Oct. 3, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed there; TV crews filmed a mob dragging corpses through the streets. A few days later, Aspin and Secretary of State Warren Christopher went before 200 members of Congress to explain the Somalia policy. Aspin performed so poorly -- it was "abominable, horrific," said an aide who was there -- that White House adviser David Gergen said to an aide: "If we ever do anything like this again, the president ought to fire us all." Indeed, Aspin was damaged goods. The former Wisconsin congressman -- at that point the only member of the Clinton foreign-policy team with any real political background -- would be out by February.

Although it went unreported at the time, Aspin also was warring with Lake on another front: Haiti. Without consulting Aspin, the White House had drawn up a plan to send unarmed U.S. military advisers aboard the USS Harlan County to Haiti to begin implementing the Governors Island accord, which called for "aid in modernizing the armed forces of Haiti and the creation of a new police force." Aspin said that the troops shouldn't go at all, but that if they were ordered in, they should be armed. Lake finally said to Aspin: "Les, do you want a piece of paper from the president ordering you to send in the Harlan County?" Aspin replied: "No, Tony, if you tell me the president feels that strongly about it, then we'll go ahead." But Aspin won an agreement that the soldiers go armed.

On Oct. 11, the Harlan County steamed into Port-au-Prince harbor carrying 193 U.S. and 25 Canadian military trainers. The U.S. Embassy had been assured by the port manager, a brother of junta member Michel Francois, that a berth would be open for the Harlan County. Instead, the berth was blocked with small boats, and a crowd of about 100 toughs waving pistols and chanting "We are going to turn this into another Somalia" rocked the car of U.S. Charge d'Affaires Vicki Huddleston. The Harlan County stood off, awaiting orders.

It was a public humiliation for the White House, and inside there was fierce debate about how to respond. Just a week before, 18 GIs had died in Somalia, but Pezzullo argued that the troops off Haiti should force their way ashore. "This is just a bit of political theater," Pezzullo recalls saying. Aspin was scornful. Committing U.S. troops to invade Haiti was a grave decision that demanded extensive study and considerable forces, he said. To use a company of trainers to mount an invasion was a needless risk of U.S. lives, he said. They were "the wrong troops with the wrong equipment" for an invasion. Aspin won over Lake, Gore and Christopher. On Oct. 12, the Harlan County sailed away. "When we caved, we pulled the plug on Governors Island,"says Pezzullo.

But the embarrassing turnabout had planted a seed. The idea of direct U.S. military involvement in Haiti had been raised openly among senior officials. An interagency task force was ordered to study the issue. The verdict: an invasion would be no problem. The problem, all agreed, would be extricating those forces. "We'd never invade Haiti," White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers told a member of the U.S. Atlantic Command at a Pentagon gathering a few months later. "Getting in is easy. How do you get out?" "That's good to hear," the navy officer replied. "I'm glad someone in Washington has some sense."

From october until the follow-ing spring, the administration ostensibly pursued Pezzullo's strategy of trying to push Aristide and his parliamentary opponents in Haiti to form a centrist coalition government. American officials in Port-au-Prince, along with key members of the Senate and House intelligence committees, pressed Clinton to approve a program of covert action in Haiti. But the White House "didn't consider [the CIA] a friendly group," said one U.S. intelligence official. "They had been critical of how the agency had been used and Iran-contra and didn't want any part of a covert operation." By March, it was clear that Pezzullo's strategy was, as Randall Robinson, head of the lobbying group TransAfrica, put it, "dead on arrival." The regime was not budging. Aristide wasn't even talking to Pezzullo; Christopher, Lake and other senior foreign-policy advisers began to have meetings without him. The strategy "just collapsed," says a senior White House official who was clearly exasperated by Pezzullo. "Larry wanted to continue along that line. There was always another initiative, the second cousin of the head of the Parliament who believed he could get to Cedras . . . It became clear we were just chasing butterflies."

Led by Lake and Berger, National Security Council officials pushed for aggressive action against the military regime. They wanted to crank up the sanctions and lay the groundwork for possible invasion. They were joined by senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and Strobe Talbott, the new deputy secretary of state, who had been handed the Haiti brief and soon decided that sanctions alone were unlikely to drive Cedras from power.

On the other side were pentagon officials who thought it foolhardy to threaten invasion -- and who took cover behind the argument that planning an invasion was unnecessary because Pezzullo was making progress with his diplomatic strategy. Both Powell and Aspin were gone. The new defense secretary was William Perry, a former mathematics professor, an expert on defense-procurement reform and an amateur at capital politics. His deputy was John Deutch, former provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another political neophyte. And the military's heavyweight was Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili, chosen by Clinton and Aspin precisely because he did not have Powell's political agility.

Aristide had a direct line to the White House. His contact was his Washington lobbyist, Michael Barnes, a former member of Congress and an old acquaintance of Berger's who had been a noisy opponent of U.S. policy in Latin America under the Reagan administration before losing a Senate bid in 1986. Barnes worked with Lake on the 1972 Muskie campaign; in 1992 he was Clinton's chief fund raiser in Montgomery County, Md., the capital's poshest suburb. Barnes ended up at Berger's old law firm, Hogan & Hartson, and he often contacted Berger at the White House on behalf of Aristide. "Sandy provided a high-level avenue of communication. There's a lot of trust between them," says a senior White House official. (A Berger spokesman says that there is "only the most distant relationship between them.") The Aristide forces also found a friend in Nancy Soderberg, the No. 3 official at the NSC who used to work for Sen. Ted Kennedy. Likewise, Lake has what one official calls "an old but complicated and often testy friendship" with Randall Robinson, dating back to Lake's days as a student of Africa. Robinson and Aristide shared the same PR firm.

Barnes mounted a formidable lobbying effort on the Hill and with the White House to get the State Department to call off its pressure on Aristide. On March 8, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee lambasted the State Department for siding with Aristide's political opponents. "All the pressure is being put on President Aristide as if he's the bad guy," Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin railed at the hearing. Pezzullo's policy was unraveling.

Also pushing the White House toward invasion was a band of liberals who believed that Aristide, the democratically elected president, should not be pressured by the United States. At the head of this group was the Congressional Black Caucus, which in March made Aristide's return a litmus test for its relations with an administration desperate for votes on the crime bill and health-care reform. The faction also included other lawmakers (six of whom were arrested for protesting in front of the White House), Hollywood liberals from Spike Lee to Robert De Niro to Julia Roberts (who took out an ad in The New York Times calling for a change in immigration policy), Randall Robinson and Aristide himself, who condemned the U.S. direct-return policy as "racist." He saw the tide turning in his favor. Vice President Gore met with Aristide on March 25 to urge him to work with the Haitian parliamentarians, but Aristide turned him down.

Critics inside and outside the White House say Clinton's team became captive to liberal groups. "We were talking disproportionately with members of the Black Caucus, and not enough to the relevant congressional committees who have the expertise," says one NSC source. Berger and Lake spent hours with members of the caucus. Key players with defense and foreign-policy knowledge were marginalized, according to Clinton insiders unhappy with the way the Haiti policy developed. "The administration was responding to a very narrow constituency," says Rep. Robert Torricelli, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. He said his advice was "rarely sought and almost never accepted."

Robinson's hunger strike in April marked the beginning of an all-out offensive by the left. Other activists, including some members of Congress, protested outside the White House and were arrested. Clinton ordered a wide-ranging review of his Haiti policy. And pro-junta goons in Haiti helped stoke the fires by intensifying their terror campaign against Aristide's supporters. During one meeting, Clinton, clearly agitated after seeing photos of mutilated corpses, told aides he hated to be in the position of forcing Haitians to "choose between drowning at sea or having their faces cut off." In late April, Pezzullo resigned, just in time to avoid being fired. Members of the administration had begun speaking openly of invasion. "We are heading irrevocably down a path toward unilateral military intervention in Haiti," Pezzullo warned in a resignation letter. The Pentagon was ordered to begin full-scale military planning, and, at United States urging, the U.N. Security Council on May 6 approved a near-total trade embargo on Haiti.

Robinson broke the policy deadlock in favor of the moralists by putting his life on the line to make Clinton honor his campaign pledge on refugees. After he was hospitalized with dehydration, "they were really afraid he was going to starve himself," said one State Department official. On May 8, Clinton announced a critical change in his Haiti policy. He would end the direct return of raft people. The United States would process the rafters at sea, offering victims of political repression asylum. Clinton also named former representative William Gray his special envoy to Haiti, replacing Pezzullo. Gray had been a member of the Black Caucus during his tenure in Congress and was widely regarded as a savvy choice. Gray would become a major new player and liaison between the pro-Aristide lobby, the exiled president and the White House. It lifted the mood in the White House. Aides recall a three-hour meeting on Mother's Day morning when Gray joined the national-security and communications team to map out the announcement before flying off to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's Inauguration. All realized there would be no going back to the Bush policy. By imposing the embargo, they had set the clock ticking for military action, because to allow the sanctions to go on indefinitely would amount to "grinding Haiti to death," as one adviser put it. But the policy seemed solid. "We felt like we finally had it together," says one official.

The new policy was a disaster. Officials admit that they grossly underestimated the number of Haitians who would set out to sea when the rules changed. Instead of the 2,000 a week they had predicted, the coast guard by mid-June was rescuing 2,000 to 3,000 a day; hundreds drowned. Officials worried that a major accident would be a PR disaster. The U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay was opened to house the overflow.

On June 28, Berger and Talbott entered S-166, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ornate hearing room in the Capitol, for a secret briefing on Haiti. The administration was contemplating an invasion of Haiti and wanted the senators' reaction. It was hostile. Only Florida's two senators, Connie Mack and Bob Graham, would give even tepid support. "I can't identify a palpable U.S. strategic interest in Haiti," complained Sen. Claiborne Pell, the committee chairman.

Later that week Clinton's advisers met for two all-day sessions to figure out how to cope with the flood of refugees. Some of the same moralists who had argued for a more open asylum policy now pushed for a reversal -- summarily returning boat people to Haiti. According to one participant, only Gray and Stephanopoulos disagreed. In response to a question from Clinton, Gray argued that the best way to "demagnetize" the situation was to find third countries willing to provide "safe haven" for the boat people until Aristide could be restored. Over the objections of immigration officials, Clinton signed on and dispatched Gray to recruit Caribbean countries to cooperate.

On July 5, the same day Gray announced the new policy, Clinton ordered 1,800 Marines aboard the USS Wasp sent to the waters off Haiti. It was a bluff; although officials leaked word that the Marines might invade, Lake's hope was that the feint would frighten Cedras into blocking the boat people. By the time the Marines arrived, bad weather and the new refugee policy had stemmed the exodus. The main effect was to give the Marines a foothold in any Haiti invasion. Under the operational plan drawn up by late June, code-named Jay Green, the invasion was to be an all-army affair. Once the Wasp was deployed, planners realized they'd have to include the Marines in a strike. As a compromise, they were given the task of taking Haiti's second city, Cap Haitien.

Even though the military planning was well along, senior Pentagon officials weren't happy. They began leaking details of White House invasion-planning sessions, hoping Congress would step in. Invasion opponents on the congressional appropriations committees egged them on by warning that the Defense Department might have to pay for an invasion out of its current budget. Through June and July, and into August, Defense Secretary Perry argued against an invasion. At every White House meeting he attended, he insisted that sanctions be tightened still further. He was authorized to try to seal off Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic using Pentagon resources. It was, as one colleague put it, "Perry's last throw."

Again, the Haitian junta helped the administration make its case. It expelled U.N. human-rights monitors. That helped Talbott and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright line up support for a Security Council resolution -- No. 940 -- authorizing the use of force to restore Aristide. "We knew when we decided to go for the resolution that the likelihood of force was higher than before," said a senior administration official.

The Pentagon was coming to accept that an invasion might be inevitable. By early August, intelligence agencies were reporting that Haitians could soon face mass starvation. And two separate riots in August involving MPs and some of the 20,000 Haitian refugees in Guantanamo convinced some officials that invasion, however unpalatable, was the only way out. "We realized that we had to bring this to closure," said one Pentagon official.

The Cuban refugee crisis in August distracted the very planners who had been responsible for Haiti policy. But to counter any impression that Washington had dropped the ball, Clinton dispatched Talbott and Deutch to a meeting of Caribbean nations to drum up support for U.N. Resolution 940. Again, the junta did its part to keep the crisis at a boil. In the last week of August, Cedras snubbed a special U.N. envoy sent to offer the junta a final chance at mediation; paramilitary gunmen shot Father Jean-Marie Vincent, Aristide's most prominent ally. Clinton, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, was outraged.

For the first time, the Haiti hawks were winning some allies among the brass. One was Marine Lt. Gen. John J. Sheehan, the Joint Staff's operations director, who had served in Haiti. And during the Caribbean trip, Talbott brought Deutch aboard. He knew Deutch from the Aspen Strategy Group, a centrist think tank once chaired by Perry that gave Clinton much of his defense team. Talbott and Leon Fuerth, Gore's national-security adviser, persuaded Deutch that resolving the Haitian crisis was vital to Clinton's presidency. And because retreat was politically impossible, the only option was invasion, they argued. On Aug. 31, after Deutch came back from the Caribbean meeting, he declared that "the multinational force is going to Haiti." Shalikashvili still thought the operation ill advised, and worried about the lack of public and political support. But in the end, as one colleague put it, "Shali ran out of ways to say no."

By the time Clinton came back from vacation, the invasion option was at the top of his agenda. His first order of business was a meeting of his foreign-policy team. Almost the entire meeting was devoted to the military timetable for an invasion of Haiti. By now, the invasion force had grown to 20,000, out of White House concern that enough troops be sent in to avert an orgy of bloodshed following the junta's departure. For the first time in an interagency meeting on Haiti, there was no debate about whether to use force. "People were pretty much there," said one official.

But not the American people. In making his case for intervention last week, Clinton told a wary nation: "In Haiti we have a case in which what is right is clear." Still, there was some irony in the fact that only a day later, the president who gave today's White House moralists their first taste of government, Jimmy Carter, was called upon to try to extricate Clinton from the jam they had put him in.