Thursday, February 19, 2004; Page A22

ONCE AGAIN a poor nation with strong ties to the United States is in desperate trouble — and once again, the response of the Bush administration is to backpedal away, forswear all responsibility and leave any resscue to others. Last summer President Bush refused to commit even a few hundred U.S. troops on the ground to help end a bloody crisis in Liberia. Now he and his administration stand by as Haiti, a country of 7.5 million just 600 miles from Florida, plunges into anarchy.

Armed gangs are spreading through cities across the country in a violent rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose own police force is so weak that a group of about 40 thugs was able to take over a town of 87,000 people on Tuesday. France and the United Nations have begun exploring the possible deployment of police or peacekeepers — which is probably the only way to stop the killing. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made clear that “there is franklly no enthusiasm” within the Bush administration “for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence.” Mr. Powell rejected “a proposition that says the elected president must be forced out of office by thugs.” But that, apparently, doesn’t mean the United States — which has intervened repeatedly in Haitian affairs during its 200-year history — is prepared to take any action to stop it.

Nor has the administration been willing to take the lead in seeking a political settlement to the crisis. For several years it has delegated the arbitration of Haiti’s mounting domestic conflict to well-meaning but powerless diplomats from the Organization of American States or the Caribbean Community, also known as Caricom. In particular, it has declined to exercise its considerable leverage on the civilian opposition parties, some of which have been supported by such U.S. groups as the International Republican Institute and which have rejected any political solution short of Mr. Aristide’s immediate resignation. Apart from Mr. Powell’s statement, the administration’s rhetoric has mostly been directed at Mr. Aristide. “There certainly needs to be some changes in the way Haiti is governed,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Mr. Aristide is guilty of supporting violence against the opposition and has cruelly disappointed those who expected him to consolidate democracy. But Haiti’s mess flows in part from U.S. actions. After restoring Mr. Aristide to power in 1994 and abolishing the army that previously ruled the country by dictatorship, the United States failed to follow through. U.S. forces were pulled out after only two years — they are still in Bosnia and Kosovo eight and five years, respectively, after they arrived — and all aid to the governmentt was suspended after Mr. Aristide’s party tampered with the results of a congressional election. Some of the military’s former death-squad leaders command the gangs that would seize power. But the Bush administration would rather leave the answers to Caricom or the United Nations or France. It’s an inexcusable abdication.


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