As the US military arrives in Haiti, with only the French and Hugo Chavez raising objections, our foreign policy of global intervention gets a new lease on life – especially on the home front, where it’s needed most. Even the hardest heart cannot be closed to the sight of Marines lifting the dead and the near-dead out of the rubble, handing out provisions to starving children and patrolling the lawless streets of Port au Prince amid scenes of desolation out of some post-apocalyptic Hollywood epic. We’re saving lives, not taking them. How can anyone be against that?
It isn’t the life-saving or the rubble-clearing that evokes the ire of such hard-core anti-interventionists as myself – it’s the dire prospect, confirmed by our own military and foreign policy officials, that we’ll be in Haiti for years to come. As David Wood reports over at Politics Daily: "US officials now anticipate a large and long-term US intervention in Haiti, including a major security role that will demand a commitment of troops and resources from an already stretched military."
President René Préval is already telling the international donors conference that short-term solutions won’t be enough: the "international community" needs to stay in order to provide "long term" relief and help "build democratic institutions." In good times dysfunctional, at best, Haiti’s government has given up even the pretext of exercising its authority: "Today there is a power vacuum, but that’s almost what the usual situation is," says Pascal Buleon, a director of France’s National Center for Scientific Research. "There is no state."
But of course there is a state, albeit one that doesn’t formally assert its authority, and that is the United States of America. Historically, the US has hovered over Haiti like a stern father, using both punishment and reward to steer the unruly Haitians onto the right path. This relationship is very much on the minds of Haitians, these days, and was invoked in a recent Associated Press piece:
"’We are happy that they are coming, because we have so many problems,’ said Fede Felissaint, a hairdresser. Given the circumstances, he did not even mind the troops taking up positions at the presidential palace. ‘If they want, they can stay longer than in 1915,’ he said, a reference to the start of a 19-year U.S. military presence in Haiti – something U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted they have no intention of repeating."
Yet how they will avoid a repetition of this historical pattern is hard to say. We are already being lectured by foreigners about the need to "assume our responsibility" to nation-build, and even such an opponent of US interventionism as Eric Margolis is calling on Uncle Sam to do his duty:
"What Haiti really needs is to be again temporarily administered by a great power like the US or France. The UN should declare Haiti a protectorate of one or more of the great powers.
"This column despises all forms of imperialism. But genuine humanitarian intervention is different. US administration of Haiti may be necessary and the only recourse for this benighted nation that cannot seem to govern itself. … Most Haitians, I think, would welcome long-term US humanitarian administration…. This writer, a former soldier, prefers to see the US military saving rather than taking lives. Watching the US 82nd Airborne Division arrive in Port-au-Prince filled me with pride. That is what America is about, not bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.
"The US will waste over $1.02 trillion this year on military operations in those nations. It can certainly afford a few hundred million dollars to rescue Haiti. But much more will be needed."
Margolis says he "despises all forms of imperialism," and yet it looks like some forms – the "humanitarian" form – are okay, as long as the motives of the imperialists are pure enough for his tastes.
Regardless of the motivation, however, the objective and all too predictable consequences of long-term US intervention in Haiti will benefit neither the Haitians nor the US. No humanitarian effort can be successful in the absence of security, and the 10,000 or so US troops currently in or on their way to Haiti will doubtless have to assume the security functions of the mythical Haitian "government," which has collapsed along with most of the structures in the capital city of Port au Prince. This will inevitably lead to the US separating rival Haitian gangs, vying for power and advantage amid the ruins, and in effect becoming the de facto government of that tortured and luckless half of an island. In short, the logic of intervention will embroil the US in Haiti’s tumultuous and often murderous politics, and from that kind of quagmire there is no easy extrication.
It is also rather shortsighted of Margolis, normally a writer whom I admire, to imagine that our supposedly goodhearted rescue efforts in Haiti are unrelated to the bombing of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. While the benevolent visage of the American hegemon is on full display in Haiti, pardon me if I question the purity of Washington’s motives, which are, as always, based on purely political calculations. As limbs are being amputated in the streets by doctors without benefit of anesthetics (except a bottle of vodka), Margolis informs us that "a French aircraft carrying a full operating theater was not allowed to land so that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could fly in and make a speech." Can’t miss that photo op!
But of course this is all about photo ops, and revamping Washington’s image in the eyes of Americans as much if not more than those of foreigners. We may be dropping bombs on Pakistan and Afghanistan, but we’re also dropping food aid and millions of dollars on Haiti – as if the latter makes up for or obscures the former. These are the two faces of interventionism, and yet there is a crucial link between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who are, after all, the same entity, and this is what Margolis misses.
What he and other endorsers of the "save Haiti from the Haitians" campaign have to answer is the following question: If we’re nation-building in Haiti, then why not in Afghanistan, too? Indeed, there is a parallel in the dire straits both countries find themselves in: the consequences of Afghanistan’s decades-long war, essentially a civil war stoked by numerous foreign invaders, could be likened to a natural disaster in terms of the costs and the scale of destruction: both countries are "failed states," and Somalia, another example of US interventions of which Margolis disapproves, also fits into the same mold.
The headline on the Margolis piece – perhaps imposed by the clueless editors over at Huffpo, perhaps not – reads "Haiti Must Be Rescued From Itself." One could easily insert Somalia, Afghanistan, and any number of similarly failed or failing states into that particular slot, and come out with an identical rationale for intervention.
Such a mindset is the very essence of modern, and specifically of American imperialism: the idea that the world must be saved from itself. But the world is too big, too unruly, and too ungrateful to be saved, from itself or anyone else: this is the bitter lesson history teaches us at every conjuncture.
Humanitarian aid is one thing: administering the country, under UN auspices or not, is quite another task, one that we should not take up – and are already taking up, even as I write these words of warning. Our "humanitarian" liberals cavil that Haiti has no government, but the problem goes much deeper: in its present state, the country is ungovernable. An inquiry into the reason for Haiti’s fate can perhaps be illuminated by asking why the other half of that Caribbean island, the Dominican Republic, is relatively stable and prosperous. Such a project, however, is far beyond the capabilities of the US military, which is a peerless fighting machine – and not so talented when it comes to advanced anthropology and sociology, in spite of its recent foray into that field.
This conception of the American military as an institution capable of performing any task, no matter how far removed from its legitimate functions, is a delusion shared by liberals and conservatives alike. It is a specifically American conceit, born of post-cold war hubris and an older tradition that can be traced all the way back to Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. "Send in the Marines!" is an almost magical invocation, a panacea capable of solving most if not all the world’s problems. Like all magical incantations, however, it is not based on reality – as we will learn in due course if our Haitian mission of mercy turns into a long-term or even medium-term project.
Not every problem has a solution: not every tragedy can be avoided or ameliorated, and certainly government – which is, in essence, armed force – is a notoriously blunt instrument, a broadsword where a surgical scalpel is what’s called for. The irony is that one of the few things we can do to immediately bring economic relief to Haiti is deemed "controversial" – abolishing trade restrictions [.pdf] imposed on Haitian products that enter the US. It’s doubtful President Obama’s union supporters will sit still for that.