Commentary

Haiti’s Requiem for Nation-Building

Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has fled. The island country is in crisis. The U.S. is sending Marines as part of a multilateral peacekeeping force. Instead of occupying yet another failed state, however, Washington should declare its era of nation-building to be over.

A decade ago the Clinton administration, fresh from its fiasco in Somalia, decided to save Haiti at the point of a gun — or, more accurately, the guns of 20,000 American soldiers. Stated Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch, “we are determined to return democracy to Haiti.” White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers similarly explained: “It is time to restore democracy to Haiti.”

The military leaders fled. President Aristide returned. America’s democracy campaign triumphed.

Unfortunately, though President Aristide had been democratically elected, he acted more like murderous French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, to whom he compared himself, than George Washington. Aristide intoned the so-called necklace — a tire filled with flaming gasoline which was frequently placed around the necks of his opponents — to be a beautiful thing.

Haiti moved from a military dictatorship to a presidential tyranny. Government was arbitrary; elections were rigged; Aristide’s thugs terrorized his opponents; poverty was immiserating.

Even as its problems festered, Haiti disappeared from Washington’s radar screen. The Clinton administration was not inclined to revisit the wisdom of returning Aristide to power.

To the contrary, Washington moved on to new nation-building adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. Both occupations continue, with artificial territorial entities ruled by outside bureaucracies masquerading as democracies and countries.

But last fall Aristide’s luck ended. He fell out with Amiot Metayer, head of the Cannibal Army, a street gang that acted as Aristide’s foot soldiers. Metayer was murdered, Aristide’s followers were blamed, and the Cannibal Army switched sides.

Early in February the renamed Gonaives Resistance Front began seizing control of Haitian cities, as other opponents of Aristide, some democrats, some thugs, joined in. The regime collapsed.

Naturally, Washington was expected to step into the breach. The Bush administration proposed a power-sharing agreement which would have kept Aristide in power for the remainder of his term, until February 2006. The opposition understandably said “No thanks.”

In contrast, Aristide pushed for a foreign military presence to maintain his power. “If we have a couple of dozen of international soldiers, police, together right now, it could be enough to send a positive signal to those terrorists,” as he described the gangsters he had once helped arm.

Even as his thugs took over the streets of Port-Au-Prince, the capital, he waxed humanitarian. “Once they realize the international community refuses [to allow] the terrorists to keep killing people, we can prevent them” from killing more people, said Aristide.

He had some American allies. Jesse Jackson, never hesitant to meddle in conflicts not his own, demanded U.S. intervention: “Unless something happens immediately, the president could be killed. We must not allow that to happen to that democracy.”

But few foreign nations had either any illusion about Haiti being a real democracy or any desire to buttress Aristide’s discredited, authoritarian rule. The Bush administration refused to countenance another military invasion to sustain America’s one-time symbol of democracy.

So Aristide had little choice but to flee. Causing Washington to try again.

“The government believes it is essential that Haiti have a hopeful future,” says President George W. Bush. “The United States is prepared to help” end the violence in the island nation.

The desire to intervene is understandable. Haiti is in chaos; the people are poor; the island is unstable. Who wants a failed state off of America’s southern coast?

But, in fact, Haiti has been a failed state for 200 years. There never was a time when the country was not in chaos, the people were not poor, and the government was not unstable. There was no democracy to restore in 1994 and there is none now.

Nor was the 1994 invasion Washington’s only attempt to fix Haiti. The U.S. occupied the island from 1915 to 1934. Sadly ephemeral were any benefits arriving with U.S. troops nine decades ago. Just like a decade ago.

America now is talking about having an international force protect a government run by Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre while elections are organized. France, Haiti’s one-time colonial ruler, has developed an even more complex five-point plan to rescue Haiti.

It likely will take more than five points to save the island, but never mind. If France wants to try, it should be encouraged to do so. Washington should stay out, however.

The U.S. has no strategic or security interest in Haiti. Economic ties are minimal.

There’s an obvious humanitarian crisis, but it is no different than that present in two or three score other nations around the globe. Haiti’s unique threat is the possible generation of a stream of refugees; that problem is neither new nor serious. Indeed, the U.S. could easily assimilate anyone desperate and dedicated enough to make it across the narrow strait to Florida.

At the same time, Washington’s military is stretched to the breaking point around the globe. Some 110,000 soldiers and Marines are being rotated into unpleasant and deadly duty in Iraq. Another 10,000 are fighting in Afghanistan. Nearly 10,000 more remain on station patrolling the failed states of Bosnia and Kosovo. Even larger garrisons protect prosperous and populous states in East Asia and Europe.

With Pentagon officials worried about the impact of increasingly frequent and lengthy foreign deployments on both the active and reserve forces, it would be foolish to add another difficult and unnecessary overseas posting to the mix. America’s unique international advantage is war fighting. Let other states, like France, provide occupation troops where and when necessary.

Few countries have had as tragic an experience as has Haiti. But it is neither America’s purpose nor within Washington’s power to right every wrong. The U.S. should stop trying to do so.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.