President Obama’s response to the Haitian earthquake has been sure-minded and swift. He saw the situation as “one of those moments that calls out for American leadership” and has acted accordingly.
We support the president without reservation. The moral case is self-evident; our hemisphere’s poorest people have been visited with a disaster of epochal proportions, and we are in the position to offer them the greatest help. But the strategic case is also compelling. Haiti is our very near neighbor, with which we have long cultural and political connections. With a transition looming in Cuba and challenges in Central America from Venezuela among others, there is a political reason to be—and to be seen to be—a good and strong neighbor.
The earthquake struck at a particularly delicate moment for Haiti’s internal security and political development. From the days of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s “Tonton Macoutes,” armed and violent gangs have been a principal source of power in Haiti. In recent years, the most notorious has been the Chimères—strong supporters of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Press accounts from Port-au-Prince make it clear that, amidst the devastation and the chaos, with the main prison collapsed and 1,000 inmates escaped, the machetes have come out again.
The earthquake devastated the Haitian police and the leadership of the U.N. mission in Haiti. Since Aristide’s ouster in 2004, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, as many as 7,000 troops, has been conducting a painstaking counterinsurgency-like campaign to suppress the gangs. Aristide is clearly looking to exploit the new situation from his exile in South Africa. In Johannesburg last week he held a press conference to announce that he “cannot wait to be with our sisters and brothers in Haiti.”
Thus President Obama’s decision to include the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines among the 8,000 troops that will arrive in Haiti by the weekend is both tactically and strategically sound. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated that the total U.S. military presence in the region could soon climb above 10,000 for what is both a humanitarian relief mission and an armed stabilization mission to prevent the renewal of a violent struggle for power in Haiti.
Securing the conditions for any effort at larger-scale reconstruction is going to take a long time and considerable American involvement. President Obama is rightly committing us to this effort. But there is a danger in the president’s detailing his “national security team” to make Haiti “a top priority for their department and agencies right now.” The State and Defense departments have got a lot of other priorities that should not be shortchanged. And given our repeated short-changing of the military in the last two decades, meeting our responsibilities in Haiti and everywhere else won’t be easy. A brigade of airborne troops and a battalion of Marines for Haiti may not seem like much. But the Army and the Marine Corps are so much smaller than they should be that the mechanism of “force generation” for various theaters is a brittle, just-in-time thing, sorely tested by the constant deployments since 9/11. President Obama’s timetable for a rapid Afghanistan surge was already doubtful; Haiti will make it even more difficult.
And a successful Haiti mission will obviously demand much more than a healthy infantry contingent. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson will provide, essentially, an extra airport for Port-au-Prince. The USNS Comfort will be the largest and most advanced medical facility in Haiti. The U.S. military will bring a varied set of engineering capabilities to rebuild the port and clear streets. The Vinson and the large-deck Marine amphibious ship USS Bataan will be stocked with fleets of helicopters to ferry the needed water, medicines, shelter, and food to suffering Haitians. The U.S. Air Force, already running the Haitian air traffic control system, will deploy waves of cargo aircraft and, even more critically, the cargo-handling expertise and equipment needed to get supplies unloaded and airplanes off the overcrowded tarmac.
It is therefore no small irony—and no small problem—that in two weeks’ time, the administration will be unveiling a defense review, a long-term defense plan, and a 2010 defense budget that will accept a further decline in U.S. military capabilities. Apparently two aircraft carriers are to be mothballed. The four-year defense review will describe a plan to “balance risk,” as though international politics were a stock portfolio to be carefully managed, and security commitments subject to periodic divestments.