The Magazine

Mission to Haiti

It won’t be easy or cheap, but the U.S. military has a crucial long-term role to play.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Mission to Haiti


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.


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