Secretary of State Colin Powell told Senators Thursday the United States is willing to participate with other countries in an international police presence to stabilize the situation in Haiti. But he said it still hopes this can be done in the context of a political deal between Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the opposition.
Mr. Powell's comments to the Senate Budget Committee reflected some frustration with the situation in Haiti, where he said the democratic political process "has essentially collapsed."
But he said he is continuing to press for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with, among others, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, with whom he said he had spoken by telephone Thursday for the second time in less than 24 hours.
The secretary's remarks came in response to criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the Haitian crisis from Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, who wants immediate deployment of an international security force to Haiti to quell the violence, and head off an exodus of Haitian boat people to Florida.
Mr. Nelson said the United States' reluctance to intervene now will assure the outcome the administration has hoped to avoid, the ouster of Haiti's elected president, Mr. Aristide.
"What appears to be the hands-off policy of the United States government with regards to Haiti is in effect going to bring about regime change," he said. "Now, we might agree at the end of the day that Aristide is a bad character who has been corrupt and very ineffective. But in effect, when the United States government lays hands off and allows the violence and the bloodshed to increase, that's going to bring about the regime change, and Aristide's going to go. And I know you have probably been overruled by the White House on this to keep a hands-off policy."
Mr. Powell said there were no differences between himself and President Bush on Haiti policy and that the administration has had a "very hands-on" approach to Haiti, including daily contact with concerned countries, the United Nations and Haitian authorities and opposition figures.
He said the issue of an outside security force has been very much a part of those discussions, but said the United States' prospective partners in such an operation, including France, still want to enter in the context of a Haitian political deal, rather than having to try to put down the violence.
"The international community stands ready to put that force together, as my French colleague said yesterday, as part of stabilizing some political resolution of this problem," he said. "What the international community, and there may be some members of the community who feel a little differently, but most of the members of the international community with the capacity to send forces in there have said they really need to find a political resolution of some kind to support, and not just to get into an inter-positional situation between opposing forces at this time, and coming down on one side or the other."
Mr. Powell said Haitian opposition politicians have refused to accept the international plan for power-sharing because they believe President Aristide has "misled" them in the past. He said the Haitian leader is aware of that, and is considering his own political situation.
"President Aristide is aware of all we have been trying to do. He understands that we have not been able to reach an accommodation with the DP," Secretary Powell said. "I know that he is taking a look at the situation. I don't know what judgments he may come to. But we are in a difficult moment in the life of Haiti, the life of the Haitian people. It's a great disappointment to me to find ourselves in this position."
Though the administration has said Mr. Aristide should be able to serve out his term, which runs until 2006, Mr. Powell said last week that, if he stepped down on his own volition, as part of a political accord, it would be "fine" with the United States.
The secretary told Senator Nelson, the administration "is very sensitive" about the prospect of a surge in illegal migration by Haitians, and that an interagency meeting was held Thursday on how to deal with such a challenge.
President Bush said Wednesday that he had told the U.S. Coast Guard to turn back refugees trying to reach U.S. shores, and that the United States was strongly encouraging Haitians to stay home, as efforts continued for a peaceful solution to the crisis.