Originally: Our Opinion: Restore Order, Negotiate Political Solution

Violence and lawlessness have spread like wildfire in Haiti this week, spiraling the country closer to chaos and, according to a U.N. spokesperson, raising the possibility of a “major humanitarian crisis.”

With Gonaives and nearly a dozen towns and villages in open revolt, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide faces the most serious challenge yet of his, thus far, failed tenure. His overriding priority must be to direct his weak police forces in a lawful restoration of order with a minimal use of force. Mr. Aristide also must find ways to avert a worse disaster caused by fighting that has interrupted food deliveries, knocked out power and created gasoline shortages. Finally, he must begin to carry out the ”confidence building measures” as outlined last week by CARICOM, Haiti’s regional neighbors.

Chaos threatens

The open rebellion and takeover of police stations by undisciplined, disconnected gangs is an ominous turn. If unchecked, Haiti could be thrown into chaos. Some of the gangs were once Lavalas Party loyalists supportive of Mr. Aristide, but not all of them. Few have links or ties to other gangs, and they have no professed political objective other than opposition to Mr. Aristide.

On Tuesday, some members of opposition parties sought to distance themselves from the wild, random violence of the gangs even as they stubbornly and unreasonably continued to insist that Mr. Aristide leave office as a precondition for their engaging in political negotiations. ”We distinguish the popular movement we support [that demands] the departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide from armed rebels with whom we do not identify ourselves,” said Micha Gaillard, a prominent opposition party member.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials sought to calm the situation by pressing Mr. Aristide to fulfill his pledge to implement the CARICOM agreement and by collaborating with Canada and Haiti’s regional neighbors to encourage ”dialogue, negotiations and compromise.” But the White House mustn’t waffle on the question of whether the United States would sanction the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Haiti. Regrettably, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was less than clear on the point Tuesday when asked a question about Mr. Aristide.

Wrong message

”Do you have a position on whether he should stay in office?” a reporter asked.

The only answer can be that U.S. policy supports the elected president. That is no endorsement of Mr. Aristide’s behavior, but a recognition that if U.S. policy in support of democracy is to have any credibility, elections have to mean something and elected presidents cannot be routed by mobs. Instead, Mr. Boucher said that a political settlement would require ”some fairly thorough changes.” This sends the wrong message. We hope there is still time to rescind it in favor of unequivocal support of the democratic process.