Rodrigo Abd  /  AP file
A man gestures with a shotgun as looters make their way to the port past a dead man in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 27.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 3/4/2004 3:33:08 PM ET 2004-03-04T20:33:08

There is plenty of blame to go around for Haiti’s descent, yet again, from a badly ruled and widely ignored basket case of a nation to bona fide failed state. Typically, one of the less important issues is the one getting all the attention: Did U.S. troops intervene and force President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile?

Critics of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, decry Aristide's departure as another case of "regime change" and pre-emptive bullying.

Yet it was from Paris, and not Washington, that the first international call for Aristide's resignation came. And, in the words of the host of the satirical newscast “The Daily Show,” John Stewart, the only thing that appears to have been pre-empted in Haiti was "film of Aristide's battered body being dragged through the streets of Port-au-Prince."

Election year foreign policy
How Aristide wound up in the Central African Republic on Monday is a debate that may drag on — this is, after all, a presidential election year. Democrats in the House say they want an investigation, and so do Caribbean nations, fearful of what the Bush administration will pre-empt next.

HAITIAN MIGRANT IS TRANSFERED TO US COAST GUARD CUTTER VALIANT AFTER BEING PICKED UP AT SEA
U.S. Coast Guard via Reuters
A Haitian refugee heading for Florida is transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Valiant in February for return to the island.
A more interesting question is why Haiti, which briefly captured America's attention in the mid-1990s, was allowed to fester and collapse again into political insolvency. This is less likely to be investigated since both the Clinton and Bush administrations, both parties in the U.S. Congress and Aristide, himself, share blame.

Yet the most important issue has drawn scant attention so far. Whether Aristide jumped or was pushed, Haiti needs sustained help from America. This island nation has become to the Americas what Sudan is to Africa: the source of enormous refugee flows, crushing poverty and disease and cyclical violent political upheaval. Regardless of how American voters apportion blame for Haiti's current plight, the problem facing Bush is how to prevent it from getting worse while keeping one eye on the burdensome U.S. deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other on the volatile politics of Florida.

The next temptation
If fixing Haiti sounds like an invitation to "nation-building," that's because it is. It is Haiti's great misfortune to have collapsed last during the 1990s, when Americans had little interest in the rest of the world beyond what a nation's cuisine could add to our menus. U.S. forces stayed only a year and the United Nations only a year more. Financial aid, never generous, largely ended in the last days of the Clinton administration when Aristide refused to address charges of fraud in the 2000 elections.

So will America stay the course this time? There is no clear answer ... yet.

Currently, there is no official plan for the length of the American deployment in Haiti, which by week's end will number about 1,500 U.S. Marines. Another 500 French troops, 160 Chileans, 100 Canadians and assorted other nationals are also there. The United Nations has authorized this multinational force to be there for three months, roughly the time it will take for Haiti's interim president, the Supreme Court justice Boniface Alexandre, to organize new elections.

Much as his GOP blood and loyalties may predispose the president to make short work of this impoverished island, the president might just be tempted to leave American troops on the ground a bit longer — at least until November.

After all, imagine what might happen in Florida if American forces withdraw quickly, violence erupts in Haiti and refugees head north. The last coup in Haiti — the one that ousted Aristide in 1991 — was followed by an exodus of 68,000 Haitians toward the Sunshine State.

But President Bush, according to an administration official, may be tempted to offer longer-term help. Haiti's economy is so prostrate, the official noted, that even relatively small amounts of aid — say $500 million over the next five years — would have enormous impact.

"There is talk of doing a great deal more now that [Aristide] is gone," the official said. "It depends on who replaces him, but there is discussion of some real engagement."

Divisive figure
It may sound odd to hear that Haiti's elected president — the one restored to power by a U.S. military intervention in 1994 — is regarded by Washington as an obstacle to engagement. But then, Aristide's place in history is not confined to Haiti. He was, and remains, a hugely divisive figure within the American establishment.

Well before his election as president in 1990, Aristide was on the CIA's radar screen as a potential problem.

Peacekeepers"He was viewed as a slum revolutionary, a communist and a troublemaker," says a former U.S. intelligence official who now works for a prominent Republican senator.

During the 1980s, Aristide was a Roman Catholic priest who was defrocked for his left-wing political activism. When Haiti's military toppled him in 1991, Aristide soon became part of the American culture wars as prominent black Americans politicians, along with liberals and Floridians fed up with an uncontrolled Haitian influx into their state, pushed the Clinton administration into a military expedition to restore Aristide to power.

On the other side, Republicans, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, branded him a murderer and a psychopath. Each side manipulated CIA intelligence to its advantage. By 1994, with American troops poised to invade, Haiti's violent junta agreed to step aside, and American troops ushered Aristide back unopposed. But the American troops, and America's attention, returned home soon thereafter. And so, here we are in Haiti again.

Martyr complex
Now, both sides are saying, “I told you so.” Many Democrats now argue that the Bush administration deliberately sat on its hands as Aristide's government lost ground to rebels.

John Kerry, the leading Democratic rival for Bush's job, says he would never have let the situation deteriorate to the point where an elected leader was forced to leave.

"They have a theological and an ideological hatred for Aristide. They always have," he said at the Democratic primary debate in Los Angeles last week, describing senior Bush officials. "They approached this so the insurgents were empowered by this administration.''

Republicans are saying that Aristide showed himself to be no democrat (small "d"), just as they predicted.

"We tried to get him in a process with the opposition," Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress Wednesday. "But by the time this thing came to a crisis, the opposition had been so disappointed and so resentful and untrusting of President Aristide's efforts over the years that we couldn't get that together."

Indeed, Aristide's erratic behavior made him hard to love. Perhaps inevitably, given his personal history, he tended to strike the pose of a martyr, and by most accounts, during his just ended second term as president, allowed this attitude to get in the way of the democratic principles he so frequently cited when asking for foreign aid.

Most important, he failed to curb his Lavalas party's thugs, gangs known as "chimeres," who had adopted the tactics of the thugs that Haiti's dictatorship employed, the notorious tonton macoutes.

Pay now, or pay later?
Even if American forces did forcibly place Aristide on a plane out of the country — and the evidence is inconclusive right now — there is a case to be made for what the Bush administration did over the weekend. By sweeping in ahead of rebel forces and spiriting Aristide to safety in Africa, a bloodbath may have been averted.

In the past, it was the failure to do precisely this — to act decisively as rebel movements closed in on capital cities — that led to some of the worst disasters of recent memory: the emptying of Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1975, the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia in 1993 and the horrific killings in Rwanda in 1994.

This time, at least, the United States had ample international backing. There is no mention of that from the administration's critics. Yet, for some reason, no one in the White House, State Department or the Pentagon is making the case that needs to be made, either — the case for nation-building.

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