On February 29th, 2004, rebels marched down from the northern areas of Haiti, invaded the capital of Port-au-Prince, and ousted the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Much controversy has been circulated since about the role of the United States in his removal. Aristide has told the media that CIA officials pressured him and his wife to leave, threatening that remaining in Haiti would cause further bloodshed, and transported them against their will to the Central African Republic. Washington has denied all such accusations, claiming that Aristide begged for US help in getting out of Haiti.
Several crucial aspects of the Aristides’ story have been disproved – for instance, the claim that they were not allowed to communicate with anyone during their flight from Haiti, and that their country of refuge has been chosen against their will. However, it also seems clear that the Bush administration was quite interested in getting them out of Haiti.
Sources agree that the United States has refused to aid Aristide against the rebels by reinforcing US troops there or by protecting the president personally. Moreover, a U.S. State Department official was quoted by CNN on February 26th as saying that Aristide’s resignation was a real possibility, and adding: “We are coming around to the belief that there needs to be a way out of the impasse that allows a government to unfold and take power. We are looking at all of the options.” This suspiciously vague statement is an indicator – though certainly short of proof – that the administration may have long been considering the “option” of getting rid of Aristide.
The incident spurred much debate regarding the historical role of the United States in Haitian politics. The island has seen continuous bloodshed since it won its independence from France 200 years ago. A period of relative stability lasted from 1915-1934 when US Marines occupied the island, building roads, telegraphs, and other infrastructure. Once the troops departed chaos ensued once again, with dictatorships and coups following each other. In 1990, Aristide garnered the support of the poor and was democratically elected to office. He was overthrown eight months later by a military coup and forced into exile. Although the US has been implicated in the coup, four years later our troops put Aristide back in power under the slogan of “restoring democracy.”
Aristide’s regime since then has grown increasingly more corrupt and brutal, provoking at least two distinct camps of opposition. On one hand, the business elite, opposed to Aristide’s (at least nominally) leftist policy has held up a strong civil opposition. On the other, a loosely held coalition of supporters of earlier dictatorships, dissatisfied rebels, and former members of the army Aristide disbanded and replaced with loyal gangs, had been gathering forces. The latter group was responsible for the February overthrow.
US involvement in Haiti cannot be explained in terms of the Cold War. The first period of significant American involvement ended before World War II and the second did not start until Clinton. More importantly, there was no Communist-backed force to oppose; in fact, Aristide, who presented himself as a “man of the people”, was arguably the furthest left on Haiti’s political spectrum.
In addition, Haiti presents little economic interest – at most it is a market for leftover agricultural products. Hence it seems difficult to believe that the United States was guided by a significant ulterior motive in Haiti, other than a desire for nation-building fame. This explanation is particularly sensible in view of the Clinton administration’s general tendencies in foreign policy.
The absence of selfish justifications for American involvement in Haiti suggests that America’s behavior in the last two months may be viewed as the realization that Aristide was the wrong man to prop up and a desire to fix the mistake. However, in recent years Aristide has been making frequent anti-American pronouncements. Also, the evidence is strong for his support of (and financial stake in) large-scale drug trafficking from Colombia through the Caribbean and into the United States. Thus, it remains unclear whether Bush is approaching Haiti today as a nation-building obligation, or a threat to security and to important items on his political agenda – building up respect for America’s power and reducing crime and immoral behavior.
The latter interpretation may account for the rather unexpected policy of refusing asylum in the United States to Haitian refugees. Whether motivated by idealism or fear, America’s policy of allowing rebels with notoriously bad human rights records take over Haiti and then running off with the president is certainly not effective. Backing Aristide may have been a mistake in the first place; however, removing him leaves a fatally weak government presiding over poverty, violence, and a high risk of another bloody coup. History shows time and again that manipulation of Third World political leaders by the CIA produces nothing but disaster; pre-September-11th Afghanistan and Pahlavi Iran are perhaps the most notorious examples among many.
In the case of Haiti, as of so many others, halfway measures on behalf of the United States have only exacerbated the situation. American foreign policy in the Third World has generally involved supporting one faction and letting the opposing sides fight it out while providing fragmented military and financial assistance. The outcome is that a forceful reform agenda is not enforced, money is wasted, and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of military equipment in the country in question increases and becomes available to rogue leaders. It also increases expectations of the United States, and, since the half-hearted intervention policy does not allow these expectations to be fulfilled, leads to frustration and belligerence towards the West.
The answer conservatives tend to give to this pervasive problem is that we should just stay out of foreign affairs and mind our own interests. But isolationism is a meaningless stance in today’s globalized community. The economy of every nation, and certainly of the United States, is affected by the stability and productivity of every other nation. With the world increasingly divided into international political camps, security threats rarely come from one’s immediate neighbors, as they have in the past; moreover, a war between two nations tends to become many nations’ refugee problem. Perhaps most importantly, the West has at least formally renounced racism and mercantilism, leaving us necessarily compassionate towards the plight of other nations. There is no turning back to the times when we knew and cared little about the affairs of “little brown people” around the world. or a majority of Westerners the question is no longer whether we ought be a compassionate nation, but only of priorities and tactics in expressing that compassion. For better or worse, isolationism is dead from a philosophical point of view. Practically it is even more dead, given that the United States is already involved in a complex web of relations to nearly every nation in the world.
A mistake made by those who want to intervene in foreign nations, however, is that their self-proclaimed goal is democracy, rather than effective government. Democracy works when a significant proportion of citizens have the rudimentary education and economic prosperity needed in order to participate in the political process; when they share values that have cultural meaning for them, rather than for an outside force; and when those values are objectively conducive to running a peaceful and progressing society. Doing the will of the people is a meaningful concept only when that will is both articulate and sensible, and when the government possesses both benevolence and real power. None of this is true in a nation like Haiti. Hence the fact that someone like Aristide is a “democratically elected leader” is no reason to back him up; his democracy is more dangerous and less conducive to progress than Jordanian monarchy, Chinese socialism, or even the effective theocracy in Iran. This is the lesson learned – again – from the recent Haitian incident.
A true conservative stance on the issue of intervention means rejecting the fundamentally liberal notion of accepting any ludicrous and corrupt political alternative as long as it caters to the temporary desires of the people. This is particularly important when the people are easily bribed or intimidated, as is inevitably the case in poor nations. It also means understanding that “regime change” is not a dirty word. It may be impractical or expensive, but it is not morally reprehensible: it is much more reprehensible, in fact, to leave people who lack the cultural and economic tools to sustain a government to pursue their own will while mired in constant bloody civil war.
There do exist examples of successful US intervention. Post-World War II Japan immediately comes to mind; Afghanistan can be tentatively counted as well. Haiti itself, as noted above, was doing relatively well under US occupation in the beginning of the century. These examples suggest that the United States ought not be satisfied by intervening weakly in the affairs of many small nations, sending troops here and toppling a dictator there. The fact that currently we play some role in practically every small suffering nation on the globe leaves each of those nations dissatisfied and demanding that we do more. Instead, the United States should narrow its range but deepen its approach: it should invade a small number of weak, violent nations, occupy, rewrite constitutions, and stabilize their governments with its troops while garnering the support of the people by building infrastructure and providing jobs until a functioning market is established.
This is certainly a difficult and expensive approach. We tried it in Vietnam, and failed; we are trying it in Iraq, and it looks like we may succeed despite the pervasive hatred of Middle Easterners for all things Western. We must surmount the difficulties; we must recognize that the current policy of the United States amounts to keeping bloody conflict at a constant ebb, doing no more than replacing key characters from time to time. This policy is a disservice to people recovering from imperialism in war-torn nations across the world, and a disservice to our own long-term interests.
Lia Oksman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.