When the president of Haiti was gunned down last week by a team of mercenaries, the country fell into even more turmoil than before, which is saying a lot. The assassination prompted the interim prime minister to ask the United States to send military forces. But here’s the surprise: No one is jumping to accept the invitation.
Haiti is not far from the U.S. mainland, though most Americans couldn’t find it on an unlabeled map. Its proximity has always given the U.S. government the idea that we are entitled or obligated to take action to affect events there.
But we have never been able to sustain much interest because for Americans, there is nothing significant at stake in Haiti. The history of our involvement gives no evidence that we know how to achieve anything of value.
The White House says it has not ruled out a troop deployment, and an editorial in The Washington Post demanded a “swift and muscular international intervention.” But hardly anyone, in Congress or elsewhere, shows any desire to wade back into these troubled tropical waters. Democrats and Republicans are united in their aversion.
It’s a welcome change from the reaction to previous foreign crises. Maybe Americans have learned that sending troops abroad usually ends in tears, with little to show for the sacrifice except fresh graves in Arlington Cemetery.
Biden is unlikely to take this eminently avoidable risk. Back in 1994, he said candidly, “If Haiti — a God-awful thing to say — if Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interest.”
President Bill Clinton proceeded to prove him right. In the grandly named “Operation Uphold Democracy,” Clinton sent troops to remove the military junta that had overthrown President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and restore him to power. It succeeded in those objectives without doing any lasting good.
Robert Fatton Jr., a Haitian-born political scientist at the University of Virginia, told Time magazine in 2019, “If anything, the situation now is probably more catastrophic than it was in the mid-1990s.” The U.S. intervention, he concluded, “was a euphoric moment, which ended in disaster.” The democracy we tried to uphold has long since broken down.
For Americans, though, it didn’t matter if the country was governed well or terribly. Haiti was a political and humanitarian disaster before we went in and after we left. Yet none of what happened in the following years had any noticeable effect on the security or prosperity of the American people.
Humanitarian motives have often persuaded U.S. presidents to take military action, but the outcomes have usually confirmed that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That was the case with our 1994 mission in Haiti. It was the case with the peacekeeping operation mounted by the UN, whose multinational personnel were blamed for an epidemic of cholera and a plague of sexual abuse.
It was also the case with our 1992 deployment in Somalia, which began as an effort to help avert famine during a civil war. Today, Somalia is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world.
President Barack Obama used air power in Libya to head off the alleged prospect of mass killing of civilians by dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. But after Gadhafi was toppled and killed, the country disintegrated into bloody chaos. Even Obama admitted his effort “didn’t work.”
Did I mention that there are also serious risks in such missions? In Somalia, during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in the book and film “Black Hawk Down,” 18 Americans were killed and dozens wounded — a debacle that led to our departure. In Iraq, where President George W. Bush saw us as liberators, we learned the grave peril of being tangled in a conflict between indigenous enemies.
Conditions in Haiti today are no more amenable to outside solutions than they were in the 1990s. American forces might be able to restore a measure of order and assist a political transition. But any improvement would be short-lived, as the previous one was. And American blood might be shed in the process.
Things are likely to go badly in Haiti whether the U.S. intervenes or not. A novel idea has caught on with politicians and the public: When the options are all bad, let’s choose the one that won’t cost American lives.
(Steve Chapman is a columnist of the Chicago Tribune and Creators Syndicate.)