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While carpenters in Washington work on facilities for Bill Clinton's inauguration, builders are busy in Haiti, too.

Aerial surveillance since the election has shown Haitians preparing hundreds of wooden boats. They are ready to resume en masse the perilous attempt to flee for the United States -- once George Bush's immoral, and possibly illegal, repatriation policy dies with his presidency.

While crises in Somalia and Bosnia dominate world attention, Clinton's first real chance to show his skill on the international stage could be his handling of this crisis much closer to home.

It is one where an American president -- if so inclined -- can exert maximum pressure. Unfortunately, Bush was not so inclined. He seemed much more worried by the fact that Haitians might be coming here than about the persecution they suffered at home as their dream of democracy was crushed.

In fact, once Bush decided he could have the Coast Guard intercept fleeing Haitians at sea and return them without so much as a hearing, the tiny, impoverished black nation of Haiti dropped from the White House agenda. The attitude seemed to be: No refugees; no problem.

Lost amid the concern over how to turn back fleeing Haitians was concern about democracy in Haiti and the nagging question of what happens when democratic ideals and free-market ideals clash.

Put bluntly, it's hard to believe that deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's leftist background hasn't had at least a little to do with the tepid U.S. effort to help Haitians restore their duly elected government.

After the military ran Aristide out in a brutal coup, it installed election runner-up Marc Bazin as prime minister. Given his Western education, World Bank experience and conservative philosophies, it is easy to suspect the United States would be just as satisfied to have the illegitimate Bazin remain in power.

Such a suspicion puts U.S. credibility on the line as Americans trot the globe preaching the virtues of democratic rule everywhere else. If the United States is to remain credible elsewhere, it cannot afford to abandon the Haitian people's striving for democracy just because U.S. leaders were less than thrilled with the outcome.

It shouldn't be forgotten that in Haiti's first fair balloting ever, Aristide was elected by a wider margin than either Clinton or Bush before him, and with a turnout greater than in American elections. Any solution that allows someone who finished a distant second -- as Bazin did -- to remain in power would make a mockery of Haiti's dreams and of U.S. ideals.

Dealing only with the refugee problem will not solve the larger problem of Haiti's hijacked democracy. But dealing with the problem of Haiti's illegitimate government will solve the refugee problem because there would no longer be a legitimate excuse for Haitians to flee.

That is the solution Clinton must pursue as he tries to establish his credentials as an international leader. If he wanted help, he got it the other day in the form of a confidential proposal by United Nations high commissioner for refugees. It would have countries throughout the Western Hemisphere grant temporary asylum to the Haitians.

Putting U.N. clout behind the effort to spread the burden of accepting refugees not only would provide humane treatment for Haitians fleeing persecution, it would increase the pressure to press for a real solution to the crisis because more nations would begin to feel its effects. And given the United Nations' need for American help elsewhere, the White House certainly has some leverage in getting the international body to put that clout to work in Haiti.

Clinton also can twist arms to get other nations to support the Organization of American States embargo that has proved ineffective largely because much of the world has ignored it. He also can use American force to tighten that embargo. And he could take other steps long advocated by backers of Haitian democracy, such as freezing the U.S assets of those aligned with the coup and revoking visas.

In short, he can make the United States honor its ideals in Haiti. That's something Bush conveniently refused to do as soon as he found a way to stop the refugee flow.

ROD WATSON is an editorial writer for The News.

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