'Blue' Colonies, Starting in Haiti

September 28, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London.--It was only 12 hours after American Marines turned out the lights in the American embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, that President Clinton went on television to explain his readiness to intervene in Haiti.

Has Mr. Clinton read his Wordsworth? In his ode to Toussaint l'Ouverture, leader of the slave revolt and father of Haitian independence, Wordsworth wrote, ''Thy friends are exultations, agonies. And love, and man's unconquerable mind.'' But Clinton will need more friends than these if he is to avoid in Haiti what befell him in Somalia.

Haiti and Somalia have one thing in common. They present what one 19-century historian called ''a caricature of civilization.'' In both countries, torrid personal ambition and gross administrative incompetence, combined with ruthless application of the most sordid and undisciplined forms of violence, have destroyed any semblance of normal life and ordinary discourse.

Does a new imperial act, even though carried out with the blessing of the United Nations, offer promise of a better order?

The Somali effort proved to be counterproductive. As the Irish journalist Edward O'Loghlin recently reported, Somalia now ''bears a growing resemblance to the post-apoc- alyptic world of the Australian Mad Max movies, where outlaw bands scout the wasteland in weird [jury-rigged] vehicles -- technicals -- to scavenge the debris of civilization, killing the weak for the contents of their gasoline tanks.'' And this in a country, one of the very few in the world, where everybody is of one race and religion and speaks the same language.

The moral apparently learned in Washington from the Somali experience is to be not only quick in but quick out. It is probably the wrong lesson for Somalia, and certainly the wrong one to be applied to Haiti.

The only time either of these countries built up any kind of economic and social infrastructure was when they were occupied. There's not much of the Italian and British legacy to be seen in Somalia these days, but not long ago Mogadishu was a city of fine buildings with functioning hospitals and schools and a judicial system that worked.

It started to fall apart in the days of its post-independence dictator, Siad Barre. Part of the problem was his mercurial despotism and part was the undisciplined rivalry of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which sought proxy allies to control the Horn of Africa and its strategic outlook on the entrance to the Red Sea. The rivalry's only legacy was an enormous stockpile of destructive armaments. (And so it was in many other parts of Africa.)

To believe, as the Bush and Clinton administrations appeared to, that such a mess could be sorted out in a matter of months was naive. When, last October 3, 18 American soldiers were killed in a fire-fight, President Clinton decided to cut and run.

Haiti can't be allowed to frighten off the U.S. It should be the first test of a benign ''blue'' colonialism by the United Nations. To put Haiti on its feet is going to take at least a generation. It will need staying power, commitment and money.

Somalia showed the weaknesses of trying to sort out a post-colonial mess with just a veneer of military might. The British did not rule India (or Hong Kong today), nor the French Indo-China, nor the Dutch Indonesia with an armed veneer. They administered their fiefdoms down to the village hospital, school and courtroom. Where colonialism succeeded, it did so because the colonizers were there long enough to leave a house in working order.

One can cavil about the unjustness of one nation ruling another -- and indeed it had many unpleasant, arrogant and even racist features. Moreover, in Asia, at least, the colonizers overstayed their welcome. In North and South America they stayed roughly long enough to get things going. But, in Africa, they probably stayed too short a time, often only for three or four generations.

Haiti, thanks in part to the heroics of Toussaint l'Ouverture, banished the French nearly 200 years ago. The Americans occupied Haiti for 18 years in the early years of this century. But perhaps colonialism did not last long enough.

Haiti is good place to start coloring the map blue. Then we can think of a few other places . . . Somalia, Zaire, Afghanistan. . . . The Haitian project should just be the beginning of the serious business of rebuilding failed states.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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