• U.S.

Haiti: Invasion: Does It Make Sense?

3 minute read

The argument for invasion is simple: all other alternatives have not worked. Haiti’s internal turmoil is a legitimate U.S. interest because it sends thousands of unwanted refugees to American shores. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a democratically elected President owed support in the hemisphere. Yet why should America be willing to put its soldiers’ lives on the line to save Haiti? If the U.S. can negotiate with North Korea, why can it not do the same with the unsavory Haitian regime? If the refugees can be filtered through Jamaica, why should the U.S. worry about reforming the society from which they flee? If Aristide is, in the eyes of the U.S., a less than perfect leader, why should Washington take responsibility for returning him to office?

For the Clinton Administration, there are several reasons. A successful invasion could rapidly earn credibility for a foreign policy widely decried as weak and inept. It would also stand as an important victory for the international community: an unjust regime would be toppled; a brutal embargo would be lifted. What’s more, say some experts, this is the first — and most essential — step toward getting Haiti on its feet. “There is no way to govern without restoring President Aristide,” says Robert White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. “So, regrettable as it is, military intervention is less regrettable than the U.N., U.S. and Organization of American States losing out to a bunch of uniformed gangsters.”

The problem is this: What happens after the initial cheering stops? Boasting only 7,000 men, a handful of armored personnel carriers and a few patrol boats, the Haitian military is, according to a Pentagon analyst, “a joke” that is more likely to surrender early and create a political problem than fight a guerrilla war. But after defeating the army — which a Pentagon official estimates would be “finished up by dawn” — the situation gets messy fast. Military force can be an effective tool for toppling regimes, but as a means of rebuilding societies, it is a blunt instrument the U.S. has not wielded effectively in similar cases, such as Somalia.

The irreducible fact is that an invasion of Haiti would be less a military act than a political one. It would enmesh the U.S. in the governance of a country that, having only briefly experienced democracy, lacks the infrastructure to run an open, civil society. With its shattered economy and widespread unemployment, those institutions could take years, if not decades, to develop. In the end, perhaps the most telling fact is this: when the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915, it did not leave for 19 years. And the country was brought no closer to a representative democracy.

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