If We Go, Let’s Stay Until Job Is Done

With US nation-building efforts underway in Afghanistan and Iraq, can Washington afford to sink money, time, and human resources into yet another foreign country? For the sake of over 7 million Haitians, says this Miami Herald commentary, once the political will is mustered, the answer should be 'Yes'. Despite having attempted three times in the 20th century to build a stable Haiti, the US still has a moral obligation to bring relief to the worst poverty-stricken country in the hemisphere, says veteran military correspondent Joseph L. Galloway. The US, if it decides to intervene in Haiti's current civil strife, must go in for the long-haul, he argues. – YaleGlobal

If We Go, Let's Stay Until Job Is Done

Joseph L. Galloway
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Whenever we tromp on their toes, Mexicans like to say, ''Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States.'' The same could be said of Haiti.

Three times in the last century, the United States has gone into Haiti with arms and money to calm the political situation, pacify the population, get rid of one homicidal dictator or another, and build some schools, clinics, roads and bridges.

The question now is whether we will have to do it again as we read about another uprising against another autocratic leader, born of the despair of the most grinding poverty in the Western Hemisphere.

• The first and longest U.S. occupation of Haiti began in 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered in a brigade of U.S. Marines, 2,000 good men and true, and they took and pacified the entire country with a loss of only three Marines killed and 18 wounded. They stayed and ran Haiti until 1934. They built more than a thousand miles of highway with 210 bridges.

• In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the Marines again, this time to rebuild a shattered economy so communists couldn't get a toehold in the hemisphere. This the communists did the next year in nearby Cuba. This American incursion also helped prop up the dictatorship of the quite bloody-minded Francois ''Papa Doc'' Duvalier.

• In 1994, President Clinton sent the Marines in yet again, this time with the U.S. Army and U.N. peacekeepers from half a dozen armies. It was to oust the latest military cabal, that of Gen. Raoul Cedras and his cronies, and to reinstall the overthrown elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest who turned out to have a dictatorial streak of his own.

The American soldiers who came briefly on this last incursion found themselves marching across the only things that still worked in modern Haiti: bridges carrying little brass plates that said: ``Built in 1927 (or 1930, or 1931, or 1933) by the U.S. Marine Corps.''

Now the Haitians are rising up in rebellion again, seizing a clutch of towns and cities. They're killing and burning and looting in hopes of overthrowing Aristide, in part because they believe that he stole an election but mostly because he has failed to give his people a shred of hope for a better future.

I'm not much in favor of nation-building, being of the opinion that we can provide seed money and technical assistance and then let the people build their own nation.

But Haiti is different. In 1995, I visited 32 U.S. Special Forces A-Team camps scattered across Haiti. What I saw convinced me that the Clinton administration's plan to get out of Haiti as swiftly and cheaply as possible, which we did, was wrong.

You can argue that what happens in Haiti is none of our business. You would be wrong, given Haiti's proximity and the disgrace that Haitian poverty and anarchy represents in the Americas. The island nation is an easy boat ride from the Florida coast, a ride that many thousands have taken and that many thousands more will take if things don't improve.

For me, the best argument for our fixing Haiti, even if it takes 25 years and costs us billions, is that 7.5 million Haitians are worth saving.

In the poorest village on the parched Isle de la Gonave, the people built a one-room schoolhouse out of the only material available to them: the thorny twigs of a bush that grows there. Every day, the mothers shoo their children, in uniforms freshly laundered and starched, off to school. Every night, under the village's lone street lamp, those boys and girls gather in a circle, reading and writing, as they do their homework.

''There is frankly no enthusiasm right now for sending in military or police forces to put down the violence that we are seeing,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell has said. But if that should change, the United States should plan to stay this time, and plan to pay for a long reconstruction, until a country that is in desperate need of help is rebuilt -- and those Haitian children have a brighter future.

Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.

© 2004 The Miami Herald