vu All Over Again in Haiti
05 March 2004
Americans rarely realize that their own government, somewhere along the line, most likely contributed to the crisis du jour.
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 too 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
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.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World.
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