Mark Danner

Perilous Fight: Haiti’s Problems will not yield as easily as its Army

You can do anything with a bayonet, Napoleon is said to have observed, except sit on it.

You can do anything with a bayonet, Napoleon is said to have observed, except sit on it. Arms, however overwhelming, offer no substitute for politics–a lesson the Emperor might have drawn from his most humiliating defeat, in the colony of Saint-Domingue. There, a ragtag army of rebellious slaves annihilated fifty-five thousand of France’s finest troops. In 1804, the slaves, exultant in victory, restored their country’s Indian name: Haiti. Napoleon had sought to impose a military solution on what was clearly a political problem. He was followed, a century later, by Woodrow Wilson, who sent the United States Marines to occupy Haiti; nineteen years passed before Frank-lin Roosevelt finally pulled them out. Their departure was far from triumphant: having come to “promote democracy” and “professionalize the Army,” the Americans had succeeded in doing neither; the Army they left behind is the Army that President Clinton now confronts. It is unlikely that, this time around, thousands of Americans will perish in Haiti, or that the soldiers will stay for decades as occupiers. But Haiti’s crisis remains a deeply political one, extending far back into the past, and the Clinton Administration offers few signs that it knows how to resolve it.

The current stage of Haiti’s chronic political crisis began in 1986, with the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, the scion of a thirty-year dictatorship. The Reagan Administration was quick to welcome (in Secretary of State George Shultz’s words) Haiti’s “development of democratic government.” During the eight years since, Haiti has endured seven rulers, six coups d’?t?t, and several (mostly bloody) attempts to hold free elections–of which but one, thanks to the copious help of the international community, succeeded. The product of that election, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had served barely seven months of his five-year term when, in September of 1991, the military overthrew him.

The causes of this doleful history go well beyond a handful of “dictators” in military uniforms. Nor can Father Ari-stide’s ouster be explained as the product of some metaphysical upwelling of evil. It was a political event, with political roots.

Aristide had become the leader of an immense, protean mass movement that since the early eighties had been struggling–now by revolution, now by election–to seize power from Haiti’s longtime rulers. Though two Haitians in three cast their ballots for Father Aristide, those who wielded power in the society were near-ly all among the other third. They included not only the predominantly light-skinned ?lite but also the ?lite’s key ally in the ruling coalition: the country’s black middle class, whose members dominate Haiti’s bureaucracy and its Army. Had Aristide been carried into office in a revolution, those traditional powers would have been swept away. But they remained, and the new President’s most formidable challenge was to devise a means of ruling the country with fragile levers of power that he held only tenuously in his hands.

Surmounting that challenge would have required a political magician, and Aristide, for all his talents, proved to be less than that. As his enemies blocked his initiatives in any way they could–through the parliament, through the bureaucracy, through the Army–he relied increasingly on his supporters in the streets, thereby redoubling his enemies’ fears and sealing their determination to be rid of him. When the Army moved to overthrow him, almost the entire political class supported the coup.

Since then, Haiti’s political divisions have grown deeper than ever. American policy, meanwhile, has borne little resemblance to President Clinton’s version of a consistent, bipartisan effort to “restore democratic government in Haiti.” President Bush ap-plied sanctions that were almost laughably ineffective; the stark division between his rhetoric and his actions can have only strengthened the Haitian rulers’ skepticism about the true goals of American poli-cy–a skepticism that Mr. Clinton managed to reaffirm even before his Inauguration by discarding his vow to reverse the Bush policy of interdicting Haitian refugees at sea. In keeping with his decision to go on forcibly returning Haitian boat people tothe country they had fled, the Clinton Ad-ministration, for its first fif-teen months in office, persistently rejected the notion that the Haitian regime systematically violated its people’s human rights.

The Administration’s current policy dates back scarcely four months–to last May, when the President, largely in response to pressure from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, issued an ultimatum to the regime in Port-au-Prince. Thus began a policy of bluff: the United States would prepare for an invasion in the hope that the Haitian officers would flinch and thereby make an invasion unnecessary. If the officers refused to leave, Mr. Clinton would then be obliged to choose between beating a humiliating retreat and invading to force them out. Whether he realized it or not, his decision was made in May. After that, only the Haitians had the freedom to alter what was to come. If the Haitian military was offered the central role in this peculiar drama, the Congress and people of the United States were offered no role at all. Up until the last few days, the Administration, struggling to keep its many other commitments–on trade, on crime, on health care–chose not to expend any of its meagre supply of political capital on what it considered a marginal issue. The result is that, as Mr. Clinton prepares to send Americans into combat for the first time in his Presidency, he does so with scant public support and no congressional mandate. In their place, last Thursday evening, he offered assurances: “the mission is achievable and limited,” involving only a “transfer back to democracy.” But in Haiti there is no real democracy to “transfer back” to: Haiti has no established political parties, no independent judiciary, no tradition of nonviolent opposition. It has only a popular movement that will now be saddled, in a fiercely nationalistic country, with the burden of American sponsorship; an exiled and deeply controversial President; and a collection of entrenched political actors still determined to fight him. It is unclear what “nation-building” actually is, or how it might work; but it seems inarguable that if any country was ever in need of such a thing it is Haiti. Yet Mr. Clinton was at pains to insist that “our soldiers will not be involved in rebuilding Haiti or its economy.”

Ever since Somalia, nation-building has been a dirty word in discussions of American foreign policy. And yet the similarity to the way the Somalia operation unfolded is almost haunting. An American President sends troops into a failed state, maintaining all the while that the problems to be confronted are limited. (In Somalia, it was famine; the clan warfare that had caused the famine went almost unmentioned.) The troops, the Presi-dent announces, can be withdrawn within months, and then the entire matter will be handed over to the United Nations. The President makes no effort to secure the endorsement of Congress or to propose steps that might offer some chance of confronting the deeper problems of the country in question.

Of course, it was Mr. Bush who bequeathed to Mr. Clinton not only the intervention in Somalia but the accompanying philosophical vacuum of how to think about America’s role in the post-Cold War world. Mr. Clinton has offered no Clinton Doctrine to fill it; perhaps such ideological clarity is no longer possible. But more useful than the formulation of any doctrine would be a willingness to explain and to educate, to talk frankly about history and about politics, and to create an informed citizenry, ready to consider America’s behavior in the world not as an unwelcome distraction but as a matter of moral and political responsibility.

This Mr. Clinton has not yet begun to do, preferring to hope that, once having preserved America’s “credibility,” he can extract the troops and leave Haiti in a marginally bettered state. His impulse to free the Haitian people from what he rightly called “the most violent regime in our hemisphere” is unexceptionable. But it cannot have escaped his notice that on the very day he addressed the nation concerning an imminent invasion of Haiti the last handful of Marines straggled back from the failed mission to Somalia. Amid all the hubbub over Haiti, the troops came unhailed, almost forgotten; they had left behind a still chaotic country and forty-four dead, but few of their countrymen seemed even to notice their return.