WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration learned one of the cruelest lessons of foreign affairs this week: Policies that are designed to deal with situations far away may not be very workable when applied closer to home.
The painful case in point comes over Washington's controversial decision to turn away Haitian refugees who are risking shipwreck and drowning to escape their homeland, now under military-imposed government.
Technically, the Administration is using the same criteria to assess the Haitian situation that it has used to draft its policy opposing Hong Kong's proposed forced repatriation of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their homes by boat.
But the final action for each has been decidedly different. The State Department argues that the Vietnamese, whose plight the United States has supported, had already been granted asylum in Hong Kong before being deported, while the Haitians have not been admitted here.
It also contends that, unlike the Vietnamese, the bulk of the Haitians are coming to seek economic opportunity rather than to escape repression.
Indeed, Washington argues there is no evidence that returning Haitians will face persecution.
But the Administration is finding that such fine points are difficult to explain--particularly in the face of heart-rending incidents such as the one Thursday in which 135 Haitian refugees were presumed drowned after their sailboat was wrecked off the coast of Cuba.
Earlier this week, the Administration's dilemma was heightened further when Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) charged that the government is being tougher on the Haitians because they are black--an action that Rangel described as "racist." U.S. officials deny the allegation.
What makes the Administration's position so difficult to explain in public is the feeling among many knowledgeable analysts here that the major difference between the U.S. policy involving the Vietnamese and U.S. policy toward the Haitians is one of geography: The Haitians--more than 2,100 of them are waiting on Coast Guard ships and at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba--are seeking to come to the United States, while the Vietnamese are not.
"It's pretty obvious, when you look at it," says Alex Wilde, a Caribbean expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, a regional research organization. "Vietnam is far away. Haiti is close by. They could end up on our shores very quickly."
Wilde also disputes the State Department's contention that there is no evidence yet that the Haitian refugees who are sent home would be in danger of persecution or retaliation. "It's clear that there is a great deal of repression in Haiti today," he says.
Michael Coppedge, a Johns Hopkins University Latin American expert, says the U.S. position is eroded further by the fact that the economic pressures in Haiti are partly the result of American trade sanctions. Washington imposed the embargo after the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed by the army.
Ironically, the Haitian refugee problem was inadvertently of the Administration's own making. Washington's denunciation of the new military-dominated regime was so intense that word spread in Haiti that America was prepared to welcome Haitian refugees.
The Administration initially tried to squelch such rumors by having the Coast Guard interdict boats of escapees, but vain hopes--and bad communications in Haiti--propelled the Haitians to keep heading for sea.
Washington then hoped it could spread the responsibility for keeping the Haitians to other major industrial countries, such as Britain or France--or to smaller countries in this hemisphere. But such efforts have met with only modest success.
Further, the Administration's own credibility was dealt a blow this week when a federal judge in Miami ordered a five-day stay in the forced return of Haitians who had been trying to flee to the United States, encouraging still more to try to make the run. "That one didn't help a bit," an Administration policy-maker says.
What the Administration will do now remains to be seen.
Coppedge of Johns Hopkins suggests that the Administration may be able to ease the situation somewhat by lifting its trade sanctions, thus relieving the economic pressure that is no doubt adding to the Haitians' desire to leave their own shores. "It's going to be embarrassing for Bush to back down and change his course," Coppedge says, "but eventually that's what he's going to have to do."
But key Administration policy-makers insist they still are reluctant to open the way to thousands more refugees, both because it risks more deaths like those on Thursday, when the sailboat accident occurred, and because it violates U.S. immigration law.