A Case for Invading: Haiti is not Somalia An Invasion of Haiti: a Solution or a Quagmire?

September 18, 1994|By ANDREW REDING

Getting into wars is easy; getting out is almost impossible.

Long before Vietnam, this was the key argument against U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts, and today it's the argument critics -- from the Pentagon to Republican members of Congress -- use against a U.S. invasion of Haiti.

Their most frequent analogy is to Somalia, where U.S. forces entered on a peacekeeping mission but ended up in the midst of a civil war. Withdrawn after sustaining casualties, they failed to bring peace to the troubled Horn of Africa.

The fact is, Haiti has virtually nothing in common with Somalia other than the skin color of its inhabitants.

Like many other old-world societies in Africa, Europe and Asia, Somalia is torn by deep-seated ethnic rivalries (in Somalia's case, clan-based). It has far more in common with Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, or Rwanda, entities in which foreign intervention can achieve little because the disputes are ethnic rather than political.

In these instances, the state itself is not accepted by a substantial portion of the inhabitants, precisely because it is dominated by their ethnic adversaries.

Haiti, on the other hand, is more typical of societies in the Americas. As a nation of immigrants -- albeit involuntary immigrants brought to the island of Hispaniola by white slave traders -- Haiti is a melting pot of African ethnic groups.

Unlike Somalia or most other African states, Haiti has an almost homogeneous population. Ninety-five percent of its inhabitants are black, and most of the remainder mulatto; 80 percent are Roman Catholic. There are no tribes, clans, or other ethnic subdivisions. Significantly, no one questions the validity of the Haitian state.

The majority of Haitians are also united in their poverty, which is why Jean-Bertrand Aristide was able to win more than two-thirds of the vote in the country's first and only free and fair election.

The slaughter of political opponents, it must also be emphasized, is one-sided and is itself a further indicator of the vulnerability of the dictatorship. Only through the terror achieved by mass murder is the tiny governing clique able to maintain any semblance of control over an almost uniformly hostile population.

These demographic and political realities mean that an invasion aiming to restore President Aristide would -- at least initially -- enjoy the enthusiastic support of an overwhelming majority of the population.

A more appropriate analogy would be to another, albeit much smaller, black Caribbean island nation: Grenada. In 1983, a well-armed group of conspirators overthrew the government of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. The military junta later killed the popular Mr. Bishop, several other ministers, and dozens of their sympathizers. Though the carnage never approached the levels attained under the Haitian generals, Grenadians welcomed invading U.S. troops as liberators.

Just as important, all resistance ceased as soon as the Grenadian armed forces were overcome. Those who predicted prolonged guerrilla warfare failed to appreciate the weakness of the Grenadian junta's social base.

The only hold the military had over the population was its monopoly of armed force; once that was removed, nothing remained. Today Grenada remains tranquil, despite a depressed economy.

As evident in the mass efforts to flee Haiti in leaking ships on

high seas, Haitians are even more desperate to be rid of the few thousand soldiers and "attache" paramilitary vigilantes who are keeping them in a permanent state of terror.

Any foreign force that frees the population of this scourge will earn their gratitude, provided it does not then make either of two serious mistakes: becoming an army of occupation or seeking to shield those responsible for mass murder from the society they victimized.

The only valid objectives should be to disarm and dismantle the existing Haitian military and to train a replacement police force organized by the legitimate government of President Aristide.

That is essentially what was done in Grenada, where U.S. and allied troops departed after training a new police force, and where local courts were allowed to sentence the junta leaders to death by hanging (the sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment).

Two other fundamental points that set Haiti apart from Somalia: One is that Haiti is next door, not halfway around the world, so that events there have a far greater impact on the United States.

The other is that Haiti has a legitimately elected government that is accepted by the vast majority of the population. It should therefore be U.S. policy to restore that government, then withdraw as soon as a replacement police force can be trained. Our concern must be with supporting the principle of democracy, not with trying to micro-manage Haiti's internal affairs.

Andrew Reding directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research in New York. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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