The Left's favorite thug

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

If there was one moment when recent U.S. Haitian policy went wrong, it might have been in 1993 when Bill Clinton was considering whether or not to restore the exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide by force of American arms. Aristide had a well-earned reputation for thuggish tactics and emotional instability. Huddled with top aide George Stephanopoulos, Clinton briefly considered and then dismissed a CIA report that Aristide is a manic depressive. "You know," Clinton said, "you can make too much of normalcy."

Well, as Aristide again heads into exile having left his country in shambles thanks to his erratic behavior and anti-democratic rule, it is time to value normalcy in Haitian leaders again. Clinton deployed troops to Haiti on Aristide's behalf because he was a darling of the American left, which he remains despite a disastrous interlude in power. President Bush is being assailed as a betrayer of democracy and Colin Powell as a betrayer of blacks ("an immoral traitor to his race," according to activist Randall Robinson) for giving Aristide a shove out the door.

For anyone who truly cares about Haiti, however, Aristide's departure is a case of double good riddance. His ouster is an act of political hygiene that at least creates the chance -- Las Vegas odds-makers still wouldn't rate it a good one -- for a better future in the tiny Caribbean nation.

Aristide made his own mess. The Organization of American States pronounced his 2000 re-election fraudulent, a judgment accepted by nearly everyone. Aristide repeatedly refused to follow through on commitments to reform, working to consolidate his power instead. As the Haitian National Police dissolved under the pressure of its own corruption, Aristide began to rely on gangs to work his will. Hence, a seed of the current rebellion.

Former Aristide gangs, outraged that he allegedly ordered the assassination of one of their leaders, rose up against him. They were joined by right-wing gangs, as the country steadily slipped out of the unpopular Aristide's control. The democratic opposition got caught in the middle. The situation was intolerable so long as Aristide remained in power.

This wasn't a "unilateral" determination by the Bush administration. None of the important international players wanted to commit troops to Haiti with Aristide in office. "Everyone said we're not going to send a dollar or person to save this crumbling regime," says Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who has been active in Haitian diplomacy. It's no accident that a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing troops passed the same day Aristide left with a one-way ticket to the Central African Republic.

Bush critics complain that Aristide wasn't given enough aid. By the end almost all assistance to Haiti was being funneled through nongovernmental groups, because no one trusted the government. The OAS and the European Union, especially the French, didn't want to hand aid over to a corrupt regime. The United States withheld certain aid, but didn't cut it off entirely ($71 million in bilateral aid last year), continuing a stream of assistance that has been generous by any standard.

Since 1994, the United States has spent $850 million on Haiti. If you count money spent on U.S. troops in the country and on repatriation of refugees, the figure is roughly $3 billion. "If that's not a commitment to a country, I don't know what is," says a senior administration official.

With Aristide gone and the rebellion subsiding, the United States will try to restore constitutional government in Haiti. The chief justice of the supreme court has stepped into the presidency, as stipulated in the constitution. The international community will work to find a consensus choice for prime minister and then set a timetable for elections.

So, the Bush administration has helped depose a corrupt autocrat, avoided a refugee crisis and forged international agreement on a path for the post-Aristide future. Bush critics shouldn't let their affection for the twice-former Haitian strongman cloud their appreciation of these accomplishments. Alas, love affairs with thugs apparently die hard.