Déjà vu All Over Again in Haiti

When Americans see unrest, violence, rebellion or civil war in other nations on the TV news, they often rightly sympathize with the plight of the foreign citizens put at risk. Yet news is…well,…news, not history. Americans rarely realize that their own government, somewhere along the line, most likely contributed to the crisis du jour.

The United States is a superpower that meddles frequently–”either overtly or covertly–”in the business of nations all over the world. Americans just assume that such interventions have a positive effect in the countries concerned. All to often, however, what seemed to U.S. policymakers like a good idea at the time turns out to be counterproductive, and sometimes disastrous, in the long-term. For example, in the 1980s, the United States helped Iraq, which had invaded Iran, defeat and weaken that chief regional rival–”all the while looking the other way when Iraq used poison gas against Iran and Iranian supported Iraqi Kurds. No longer worried about Iran after that victory, Iraq was then free to invade Kuwait, and the result was 13 years of war between the United States and its former secret ally. Likewise, during that same decade, the Carter and Reagan administrations, to oppose their Soviet Cold War rival, funded and trained radical Islamic rebels in remote, non-strategic Afghanistan. After the rebels won that war, some of them turned on the United States and became al Qaeda–”one of the most dire threats to the U.S. homeland in the history of the republic.

And similarly, if we dig below the latest happenings in Haiti, we find much more than first meets the eye. Much of Haiti’s current problem lies in weak civil institutions and no rule of law. Unfortunately, U.S. government policy toward Haiti has contributed heavily to that state of affairs. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. military intervened repeatedly in Haiti. From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines even occupied the country. During that time, they dissolved Haiti’s parliament, instituted martial law and created the thuggish Haitian army. That army–”containing senior officers on the CIA’s payroll–” overthrew a democratically-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. The remnants of it, with U.S. help, have just done it again.

In 1994, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, threatened to invade Haiti if the Haitian military did not restore Aristide to power. But George W. Bush, a Republican, having less use for the left-leaning leader, has now forced him out. But there is more to schizophrenic U.S. policy than simply left-right politics. In 1994, Haiti’s internal strife was causing boatloads of refugees to make a mad dash for Florida, a key electoral state. Although Haitians then were fleeing mayhem, torture and other gross human rights violations, the U.S. Coast Guard forced them back to Haiti. Similarly, the final straw for George W. Bush during the current crisis was an attack on a Haitian Coast Guard installation by pro-Aristide supporters–”an attempt to shut down the return of refugees. The number of boat people now fleeing the Caribbean nation is less than in 1994, but the chaos and potential all-out civil war there threatened to dramatically increase the flow. Keeping Haitian refugees out of the United States is the primary driver of policy for both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Of course, both the Clinton and Bush administrations must bear the moral responsibility for directing a rich nation to turn away poor refugees, many of whose lives have been endangered. But the Bush administration is also put in the embarrassing position of ousting a democratically-elected leader after its high-flying rhetoric about invading Iraq to spread democracy. Granted, there were irregularities in Aristide’s election win in 2000 and plenty of corruption (there always is in Haiti), but Aristide was elected twice and even peacefully turned power over to a successor in 1996. Furthermore, the opposition fighters–”many formerly in the army, police and paramilitary–”have thuggish pasts as bad or worse than Aristide’s.

No workable solution can be imposed from the outside on Haitians, least of all by a superpower that helped destroy Haitian civil society in the first place. Haitians have to learn to solve their own problems, instead of always looking to the United States to send troops to bring temporary peace. Racing in with military forces to quell disorder merely rewards those local forces perennially initiating violence to draw in the United States. Paradoxically, if the United States declared that it would not interfere in Haitian society in any way under any circumstances, more Haitian lives would probably be saved in the long-term and the country would likely be better off. That is, removing the reward for violence would likely lessen its occurrence.

But instead, the United States has again sent the Marines to Haiti. Don’t expect it to be the last time.