ON THE HEIGHTS above Normandy's beaches, President Clinton spoke Monday of courage, sacrifice, and leadership. Coming from a man whose public life has been distinguished by none of those qualities, his words had the resonance of tin.
As the emotional D-Day anniversary neared, Clinton was repeatedly compared with President Reagan, who spoke brilliantly about faith and death and democracy at Pointe du Hoc in 1984, and with President Bush, who served valiantly as the youngest US fighter pilot of World War II. The analogies did not flatter Clinton, who maneuvered so craftily to avoid serving in Vietnam.
But it is even more demoralizing to measure Clinton against the presidents of World War II.
Convinced that America had to go to war to stop the Axis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced down the isolationism and resolute neutrality of tens of millions of Americans. Harry Truman prosecuted the war to unconditional victory, unleashing even the hellfire of atomic power once he concluded that it was what it would take to subdue Japan. Would Clinton have had their grit, their vision, their stout-heartedness?
Or would he have demonstrated timidity and an unwillingness to act alone, as he has with Bosnia? Irresoluteness, as with North Korea? Resignation and retreat, as with Somalia? A self-contradicting lack of principle, as with China?
"What I need to be doing," Clinton observed 12 days ago, "is considering changing whatever it is that is not inspiring people's confidence in me." That, he said, "is the root of the problem" with his foreign policy.
The real root of the president's ineptness in global affairs is his conviction that tinkering with "whatever it is" amounts to a foreign policy.
Which brings us to Haiti.
For nearly a month, there have been hints and whispers that a US invasion of Haiti, where a shaky democracy was toppled in 1991, is being planned by the White House.
On May 19 Clinton ticked off several justifications for sending in the Marines, among them: "It's in our back yard"; Haiti is the only country in the region ruled by a junta that seized power from an elected government; several thousand Americans live there, and several hundred thousand Haitian-Americans live here; and there is a "continuous possibility" of a "massive outflow" of Haitian boat people if democracy is not restored.
Yet, true to form, Clinton diluted his warning even as he issued it. "We are doing our best," he also said last month, "to avoid dealing with the military option." So why bring it up?
This is classic Clinton: He can't decide what policy -- sanctions? negotiations? invasion? -- to adopt; he can't bear to rule any option out. Time and again he undermines the integrity of US threats, which should be the most intimidating threats in the world. Is anyone surprised that Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and the thugs running Haiti behave deceitfully and crudely in their dealings with the United States? They break agreements. They lie about their intentions. They staged a riot when the USS Harlan County sailed into Port-au-Prince last autumn. Clinton is president, so they fear nothing.
The first President Roosevelt -- Theodore -- said an American president should speak softly but carry a big stick. This is not what he had in mind.
Why dispatch troops to Haiti? Not to reinstall the undependable and violence-prone Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not to oust one set of gangsters only to withdraw and see a new set take their place. Not out of a blind attachment to democracy for the sake of democracy.
No. If America intervenes in Haiti it must be because (1) we will not allow a destabilizing reign of terror to operate in our sphere of influence; and (2) we cannot tolerate the lawlessness that the anti-Aristide coup has led to, particularly in a hemisphere where no other dictatorship (save Cuba's) exists.
T.R. also said, in his famous corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, that flagrant cases of "chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society . . . may force the United States, however reluctantly . . . to the exercise of an international police power." That is the case for action in Haiti.
But if we go in, it's got to be for the long haul. It will require a protracted American superintendency, on the model of MacArthur's occupation of Japan, to revive Haiti's social institutions. Without rebuilding Haiti's political parties and Parliament, its small businesses, its church, its courts, its labor unions, democracy and the rule of law will never have a prayer. Such rebuilding will take time.
There are strong arguments against occupying Haiti. The Cedras regime isn't the worst in the world. It isn't committing aggression against any country or menacing the United States. Neither the UN Charter nor our hemispheric allies would sanction an invasion.
Is Clinton prepared to rebut those objections? To mount an expedition to Haiti in the face of the furious domestic opposition it will arouse? To pacify the "attaches" and the Duvalierists and risk the death of US troops?
A White House that backs down over the Harlan County -- a White House that backs down over everything -- is not going to stand tall in Haiti. To begin a rescue mission and then falter would be worse than doing nothing. It is safer for Clinton to make speeches about the crusades of his predecessors than try to launch one of his own.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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