The Magazine

HAITI

Dec 11, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 13 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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BOSNIA WILL BE BILL CLINTON'S second military venture -- after Haiti. Fifteen months ago he sent 6,000 American troops there with the promise that they would restore democracy and then leave. What is the situation in Haiti as 1995 ends, and are there any lessons in it?


For nearly a year after the Americans arrived, Haiti looked far better than c onservative critics had predicted. The Clintonites had promised that President Aristide would champion reconciliation and economic reform, abandoning his hist ory of class-warfare rhetoric and liberation-theology economics. In fact, the l evel of political violence dropped fast, a new economic plan was adopted, and a political debate began within Haiti among democrats of the right, center, and left. American officials had deified Aristide in order to win public and congressional support for military action aimed at putting him back in the presidential palace; and they continued to play favorites by supporting Aristide's people as against Haitian democrats who did not like him.


Only one year later, Aristide has reverted to form. His prime minister quit recently because Aristide blocked the privatization program and seems to have developed no taste for free-market economics. More importantly, he gave a fierce rabble-rousing speech in mid-November that led to a wave of mob violence against his political opponents. And although he now promises to step down on February 7, 1996, in accordance with the Haitian constitution, Aristide's long delay in announcing his decision leaves only days to organize the December 17 presidential election. It will be a mess.


Given the level of violence in Haiti, many administration officials admit privately that the only way to keep the peace there is to leave some American soldiers on the ground through next year. But at the same time they fret that our troops, who are potential mob targets, are a source of vulnerability as well as strength. We value democracy in Haiti and those soldiers' lives; Aristide has different standards. Others in the administration warn that the troops will have to be out by election day 1996, whatever the effect of that withdrawal on Haiti.


Any lessons for Bosnia?


First, the presence of soldiers is a double-edged sword. It is arguable that we could come down harder on Aristide (with diplomatic and economic pressure) if he had no leverage on us; but we need his help in guaranteeing the safety of our troops, and that complicates our situation. Apparently our soldiers in Bosnia will be heavily armed, but the point still applies.


Second, a large (for the neighborhood) military force may achieve peace while the troops are there but have no permanent effect. Our presence has suppressed violence in Haiti, but the number of murders and burnings is rising as our departure date comes closer. It appears that we have achieved in Haiti what Tito achieved in Yugoslavia: the temporary burial of disputes, not their solution.


Third, it is dangerous when local electorates are less committed to peace and democracy than we are. The administration that gave Aristide a halo finds itself in an embarrassing position when he shows his tail -- and his supporters love him all the more for it. How will we cope with Serbs who may be acting amiably and reasonably now but are probably war criminals, or with democratically elected officials whose irredentist speeches may provoke violence against our troops?


Fourth, this administration always acts with both eyes firmly fixed on domestic politics. Our troops restored Aristide to power because that was the only way the president could defend sending all the Haitian boat people back home. (With Aristide restored to power, Haiti was a democracy, right?) The vast majority of our troops will be pulled out next year regardless of events on the ground in Haiti, for the president is up for re-election. One cannot say precisely how electoral politics will affect our troop deployment in Bosnia, but one can say with certainty that our reaction to any significant event there will be the combined decision of Lake, Christopher, Holbrooke, Shalikashvili -- and Carville, Morris, Dodd, and the rest of the crew.



Elliott Abrams, who managed U.S.-Haiti relations when he served as assistant secretary of state inthe Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.