Haiti: Avoid the Military Option

May 09, 1994

Last time the Marines marched into Haiti, they stayed for 19 years. The U.S. occupation from July 1915 to August 1934 was justified on humanitarian grounds (a mob had butchered the president) and to uphold the Monroe Doctrine (the French presence preceded the American Revolution by more than a century). While the Americans dominated Haiti, politically and financially, they did little to endear themselves to a population that remained mired in poverty. Both countries were relieved to part company.

This slice of history -- an asterisk for Americans, a seminal event for Haitians -- should be kept in mind as the Clinton administration contemplates military intervention to rescue its failed policy aimed at reinstating President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office. No doubt an international force spearheaded by U.S. Marines would make short work of a Haitian army of 7,000 soldiers. But after the thuggish generals now in charge are sent packing, the U.S. could find itself responsible for running Haiti for a long, long time.

Sure, the mercurial Father Aristide would be brought back. Sure, food would be sent in and law-and-order imposed. Sure, the threat of a wave of Haitian boat people would evaporate. But at the beginning of the road, Latin suspicions would be inflamed. And at the end? Probably a sour taste.

[From a Sun editorial Aug. 17, 1934: "Our pernicious interference in the Caribbean was taken by Latin nations as an indication that we wanted to impose our will upon them. And the natural resentment with which they view such tendency proved a serious handicap in all our interchanges."]

Curiously, some of the main figures who fervently opposed Reagan-era meddling in Nicaragua and El Salvador are now beating the war drums for Haiti. This is partly ideological, for Father Aristide is a man of the left. But it is noteworthy that Senate majority leader George Mitchell, no longer pushing for re-election or the Supreme Court, is warning that intervention in Haiti would be "neither wise nor prudent." Former President George Bush says an invasion would be a "tremendous mistake." U.S. special envoy Lawrence Pezzullo, just deposed by the administration, frets that the U.S. has "taken on responsibility for Haiti's future" -- a favor neither to Haitians nor Americans.

These voices of caution should be heeded. Nevertheless, there is no telling what an administration publicly at wit's end will do. President Clinton says his patience is exhausted with the generals imposing a "reign of terror" on Haiti and he specifically says the military option is not being ruled out.

Awkward and demeaning it may be, but the administration should continue to try to isolate Haiti's illegal regime through multilateral, non-military means -- such as the U.N. Security Council's tightening of sanctions last week -- while offering more succor to victims of repression. No quick success can be assumed. No heroes will emerge. No medals will be struck. But at least another U.S. intervention in Haiti -- by our count, the fourth -- would be avoided.

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