America heads back to the future in Haiti

March 12, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - When it comes to foreign affairs, the 2004 presidential election offers a real choice. If John Kerry were president, we would not have invaded Iraq last March to remove a brutal tyrant. No, if John Kerry were president, we would have done something very different: We would have invaded Haiti this March to defend a brutal tyrant.

That revelation came when the prospective Democratic nominee attacked President Bush for not intervening on behalf of embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as insurgents gained control of most of the country. "I would have been prepared to send troops immediately, period," he told The New York Times. The United States, he said, "had understandings in the region about the right of democratic regimes to ask for help. And we contravened all that."

Mr. Kerry doesn't want anyone to think he's allergic to spilling a little blood when the right opportunity presents itself. "People will know I'm tough and I'm prepared to do what is necessary to defend the United States of America, and that includes the unilateral deployment of troops if necessary," he declared.

What a relief! After all the criticism of Mr. Bush's misbegotten war on Iraq, I was afraid a Democratic president would decline to send U.S. forces when some obscure country falls apart in view of CNN cameras. Instead, Mr. Kerry has reminded voters that when it comes to military intervention, the two parties agree it's a wonderful remedy. They only disagree on where to apply it.

Candidate George W. Bush took a dim view of President Bill Clinton's eagerness to put U.S. forces in harm's way for humanitarian causes, in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and - what was that other one? - Haiti. But he reversed course in office. As University of Chicago national security scholar John Mearsheimer notes, "The Bush administration doesn't look much different from the Clinton administration in its heyday. Both are into heavy-duty nation-building and spreading democracy abroad."

Mr. Bush, after all, didn't refuse to go into Haiti; he just did it after Mr. Aristide was gone instead of before. Now he has sent some 1,600 troops, while proclaiming "a new chapter in the country's history."

Why anyone would be eager to undertake this arduous and unpromising reclamation project is a great mystery. We have tried before in Haiti without much luck. The first time, we arrived with the Marines, took over the country and pretty much ran it, from 1915 to 1934.

In 1994, President Clinton forced out a military ruler by threatening an invasion, and then restored Mr. Aristide as the country's president. American troops stayed until 1996. But when they left, Haiti reverted to its lawless, ungovernable past.

Mr. Aristide had been elected, but since his return, democracy has disintegrated. He was succeeded in the presidency by protege Rene Preval, who in 2000 carried out parliamentary elections widely regarded as fraudulent. Mr. Aristide then won back his old office in a vote boycotted by the opposition. Since January, there has been no parliament, leaving him to rule by decree.

The human rights group Freedom House said last year, "The country has become a dictatorship in all but name, as power has been monopolized by President Aristide and his Lavalas Family party." This is the regime Mr. Kerry thinks we should have risked American lives to preserve?

Some Democrats have accused Mr. Bush of forcing Mr. Aristide out, and Mr. Aristide claims the United States kidnapped him. Are they hallucinating? Mr. Bush clearly wasn't about to strain himself to keep Mr. Aristide in power, but the decision to encourage his departure merely recognized reality - that his regime was doomed. It was the French government, not ours, that led the way in urging Mr. Aristide to step down.

But even with everything we face in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Bush couldn't quell the urge to undertake another military mission. Mr. Kerry would have liked to see the Marines land in Haiti even earlier, even if it meant taking sides in a civil war. But either course of action puts the United States in a position of taking responsibility for what happens next.

The last time, we didn't stay long enough to make much difference. Says retired Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Kinzer, who commanded U.N. forces in Haiti in 1995 and 1996, "The U.S. had a 1 1/2 -year plan for a 10-year operation."

Haiti is a poor, corrupt, violent place that has had 15 different governments in the last 18 years. If we're going to make a serious effort to turn it into a minimally stable, peaceful nation - to say nothing of a democracy - we're going to be at the job for a long time. Probably through President Bush's entire time in office. Or President Kerry's.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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