As the search-for-survivors phase of Haiti relief operations comes to a close, it is increasingly apparent that the scope of the disaster demands a large and long response. The U.S. military effort alone will soon have 33,000 troops ashore or in direct support of the relief operations. Private donations and international pledges of aid are in the billions. The question now is not about the level of effort, but how it can be organized and sustained.

There is a risk of overlearning the Iraq and Afghanistan lessons, but it ought to be apparent that significant stabilization and reconstruction efforts in weak or collapsed states have four essentials: American leadership in properly defining the mission and its goals; a clear-eyed assessment of the situation that begins with the facts on the ground but includes a grasp of the interests of outside parties; a coherent strategy that sets priorities through a workable command structure; and adequate resources to execute that strategy. While sound methodology is no guarantee of good result; poor methodology ensures failure. And given Haiti’s history, there is a strong moral and strategic imperative—not just for the United States, but for all countries—to help get it right this time.

Properly defining the Haiti mission and its goals is the most pressing issue. The humanitarian response has been remarkable and generous, but so far it is also chaotic and disorganized. Transforming the outpouring of emotion into a durable mission will require a very exacting but powerful form of leadership—one only the United States can provide—that focuses on the true interests of the Haitian people. President Obama must account for the sensitivities of many actors and forge a common—but not lowest common denominator—purpose. He is an ideal figure for the task, but he’s got a lot of cats to herd.

Obama must establish a set of long-term goals that can provide for political stabilization and economic development. His January 15 article in Newsweek, “Why Haiti Matters,” was a good start. The president began by eloquently expressing American sentiments and commitment, and returned to the theme of American exceptionalism he once scorned but has lately embraced. “America’s leadership has been founded .  .  . on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up.” But, beyond vowing to work with others, he did not define what “lifting up” Haiti means. The Haiti mission needs purpose before it can move on to process.

Obviously the most immediate purpose is to relieve suffering, but if there is to be an American engagement beyond that—as there should be—giving Haitians an opportunity to decently govern themselves must be the goal. Whether in the form of outside oppression or exploitation by their own elites, Haitians have ever had too little security, political freedom, and opportunity for economic development—the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This is not a utopian goal. One of the great cruelties of this earthquake is that, in the last several years, Haitians had reasons for hope. The U.N. force in Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, had slowly begun to transform the Haitian police—the armed forces still exist constitutionally but were demobilized in the aftermath of the 1994 coup—into an effective and professional force. Domestic security was further boosted by the counterinsurgency-like campaign waged by MINUSTAH to suppress the gangs—which are not only criminal but political organizations in Haiti—that too often rule the country’s streets and rural villages.

Haitian president René Préval may not be the most charismatic or able politician, but the very qualities he’s now being criticized for—the Washington Post wrote that his “aversion to the public stage has left millions of Haitians wondering whether there is a government at all”—have been those that had begun to normalize Haitian politics. The Post’s complaint, echoed across the American media, betrays a deep myopia. The capacity of the Haitian government was limited even before the earthquake, and Haitians are weary of egomaniacal leaders, having seen their share in Aristide and the Duvaliers. A “technocrat largely free of sharp ideologies”—as the Post described Préval—is a step forward in Port-au-Prince.

Economic development is possible, but only if Haiti does not become yet another battleground between international aid professionals and those who argue—rightly—that capitalism is the road to prosperity. The aid groups are already deeply entrenched in Haiti, and they are critical to the immediate relief effort. But longer term, there are alternatives to consider. Elliott Abrams, for instance, outlined an innovative “development through the diaspora” proposal in a January 22 Washington Post op-ed.

Achieving longer-term goals in Haiti will only be possible on the basis of a realistic assessment of the current situation. To begin with, there’s a long way to go to provide the most basic food, water, sanitation, and health care needs of millions of people. It’s not just those formally hurt or homeless, but the larger populace affected by the collapse of the Haitian economy. Not even the U.S. military has been able to get to many parts of the country thus far. There’s also been significant internal migration from Port-au-Prince to the countryside, but its effects aren’t yet clear.

The security situation in Haiti remains tenuous, but has been calmer than many anticipated in the immediate wake of the disaster. Violence and looting in the week following the earthquake were by most accounts sporadic, though aid distribution centers, according to U.S. soldiers, have been continuously on the verge of chaos. Some of Port-au-Prince’s notorious gang leaders have reportedly already renewed their turf wars. Many of those who had been taken off the streets by the MINUSTAH operations of recent years escaped when the city’s jail was devastated in the earthquake. The gangs aren’t likely to take on U.S. or U.N. forces, but they may think they can wait out the foreigners and prepare for a fight with the Haitian police. The recent loss of much of the leadership and infrastructure of the U.N. mission in the country make this an even greater likelihood.

The political situation in Haiti is also surprisingly calm, despite the whining about Préval. The most immediate problem is Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s desire to return to Haiti, which he announced from his home-in-exile, South Africa. Préval doesn’t want his former patron back, and neither do Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors, which helped engineer the arrangement with South Africa. Sharon Hudson-Dean, spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Pretoria, delicately made the same point: “We believe that the former president Aristide can contribute a great deal to encourage the international efforts for stability and reconstruction from South Africa.” Not from Haiti. On the other hand, Aristide is wearing out his welcome with the South Africans. Former president Thabo Mbeki felt strongly about Haiti as an outpost of African culture and liked to celebrate Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution and the defeat of Napoleon’s attempt to reclaim the colony. The current president, Jacob Zuma, is said to be less enthusiastic. The South Africans say they’d be pleased to send Aristide back to Haiti if he “would be happy with a job in academia.”

The rest of the world has stifled its anti-American reflexes for the most part. Complaints about the United States have come mostly from outside kibitzers. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has hardly bothered. French “cooperation minister” Alain Joyadet, piqued that French aid flights had to wait to get into the Port-au-Prince airport, sniffed that “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti,” but was promptly and publicly smacked down by President Nicolas Sarkozy effusing about America’s “essential role.” The Haitians themselves have been almost unanimous: “We’re all scared. We need the United Nations and we need the United States Marines,” one told the Washington Post. A typical sign in front of a crushed office building read: “Welcome the U.S. Marine. We need some help. Dead bodies inside.”

The U.N. is also trying to help out. Following a trip to Haiti last week, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for the deployment of an additional 3,500 police and peacekeeping forces to the country. Brazil said it would provide 800 of these. Canada has also acted to send troops. The Canadians, with whom we have worked very closely in Afghanistan, have much previous experience in Haiti, and the Brazilian government energetically embraced MINUSTAH as an expression of Brazil’s growing wealth and power.

In sum, the winds are favorable if the United States can chart a course. But achieving anything like unity of effort—let alone unity of command—won’t be easy. The relevant “coalition of the willing”—the United States, France, Canada, Brazil, the Caribbean states, and the U.N. collectively will prove hard to manage. And President Obama cannot easily indulge in a months-long assessment à la Afghanistan. The immediacy of the need and the difficulties of the international politics are too pressing. Obama will, moreover, need to rally American domestic support.

The first priority is to keep the security situation under control. U.S. forces are working with the Préval government and trying to be respectful of Haitian sovereignty. But the danger is in doing too little rather than too much. Unrestrained looting in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussein was a first step on the road to insurrection and the undermining of the “liberation narrative.” For people in dire need, security comes first. It is a good sign that the Marines and the 82nd Airborne are conducting patrols in Haitian streets and villages at night; a little presence goes a long way, particularly in joint patrols with Haitian police.

The rebuilding of Haiti’s security forces had barely begun when the earthquake struck. U.S. efforts to build police capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan have often made a bad situation worse; our experience in Afghanistan strongly suggests that our allies also promise more than they can deliver. As MINUSTAH is rebuilt, the Haitian security forces should be its focus, one that the United States will support. The best sign of a reborn Haiti will be a government able to secure its own people. It will also be a first step toward true political stability and justice.

It would also be good if long-term development plans began with a consideration of security—it’s what Haitians say they most want. This is not to diminish the need to relieve the humanitarian crisis or to build a better Haitian infrastructure, or to shortchange the need for economic growth. But, as the last week has made obvious, relief agencies and NGOs are in fact consumers of security before they are producers of it—they need protection to do their work, and desperate people will fight one another for the goods that they have to deliver. This was true in Haiti before the earthquake. Conversely, if security becomes self-sustaining, relief and development efforts will accelerate.

The security priority should be evident when it comes to resource questions. Once again, the U.S. military has distinguished itself by its rapid and large-scale reaction. Once again, the question is whether our current forces can sustain this level of effort and who will take their place when they leave. At 33,000 troops, the current U.S. operation in Haiti is “surge-sized.” It now includes three land-force brigades; a full-size Navy aircraft carrier and two Marine carriers, plus a host of support ships; and a significant airlift operation (almost 500 sorties thus far) involving C-130s and C-17 transports—a plane with global range but short-field landing ability. Navy and Marine helicopters are working equally hard. The staff—under the command of a three-star general—required to make such an operation work is large.

Even if this force proves sufficient, sustaining operations will be tough. Pentagon officials insisted this week that Haiti “has not right now delayed anything going to [Afghanistan], but it clearly puts a strain there.” Simultaneously, the administration announced the deployment of the second Marine Expeditionary Unit and its associated ships, which were headed for the eastern Mediterranean to be ready in case of a crisis in the Central Command area—a fairly frequent source of “overseas contingency operations” these days. The White House also issued an executive order authorizing the activation of medical teams from the Naval Reserve and up to 900 Coast Guard reservists; 100 newly activated Coast Guard personnel were dispatched to Port-au-Prince harbor shortly thereafter. As the Haiti operation goes on—the Marines have 30 days’ supply on their ships, no more—and the need for engineering equipment to remove wreckage and restore public utilities increases, Army reservists and National Guardsmen are likely to have to take up the job. With Haiti added to Iraq and Afghanistan, the distinction between active and reserve forces continues to disappear.

The cost of these efforts will be high, in the billions. Congress was already going to have to consider a higher-than-expected supplemental appropriations bill reflecting the Afghanistan surge and the administration’s previous obfuscation about war costs. In the current economic and political climate, this is hardly politically expedient, but it is essential.

The U.S. military has learned at great cost about this type of mission in recent years. And there is a coalition willing and eager for American leadership. The sixteen nations who now count themselves “Friends of Haiti” will meet this week in Montreal. It will be an opportune moment for President Obama to sketch out a plan of campaign.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Next Page