You can do anything with a bayonet, Napoleon
is said to have observed, except sit on it. Arms, however overwhelming,
offer no substitute for politics--a lesson the Emperor might have drawn
from his most humiliating defeat, in the colony of Saint-Domingue. There,
a ragtag army of rebellious slaves annihilated fifty-five thousand of
France's finest troops. In 1804, the slaves, exultant in victory, restored
their country's Indian name: Haiti. Napoleon had sought to impose a military
solution on what was clearly a political problem. He was followed, a century
later, by Woodrow Wilson, who sent the United States Marines to occupy
Haiti; nineteen years passed before Frank-lin Roosevelt finally pulled
them out. Their departure was far from triumphant: having come to "promote
democracy" and "professionalize the Army," the Americans had succeeded
in doing neither; the Army they left behind is the Army that President
Clinton now confronts. It is unlikely that, this time around, thousands
of Americans will perish in Haiti, or that the soldiers will stay for
decades as occupiers. But Haiti's crisis remains a deeply political one,
extending far back into the past, and the Clinton Administration offers
few signs that it knows how to resolve it.
The current stage of Haiti's chronic political crisis began in 1986, with
the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, the scion of a thirty-year dictatorship.
The Reagan Administration was quick to welcome (in Secretary of State
George Shultz's words) Haiti's "development of democratic government."
During the eight years since, Haiti has endured seven rulers, six coups
d'?t?t, and several (mostly bloody) attempts to hold free elections--of
which but one, thanks to the copious help of the international community,
succeeded. The product of that election, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
had served barely seven months of his five-year term when, in September
of 1991, the military overthrew him.
The causes of this doleful history go well beyond a handful of "dictators"
in military uniforms. Nor can Father Ari-stide's ouster be explained as
the product of some metaphysical upwelling of evil. It was a political
event, with political roots.
Aristide had become the leader of an immense, protean mass movement that
since the early eighties had been struggling--now by revolution, now by
election--to seize power from Haiti's longtime rulers. Though two Haitians
in three cast their ballots for Father Aristide, those who wielded power
in the society were near-ly all among the other third. They included not
only the predominantly light-skinned ?lite but also the ?lite's key ally
in the ruling coalition: the country's black middle class, whose members
dominate Haiti's bureaucracy and its Army. Had Aristide been carried into
office in a revolution, those traditional powers would have been swept
away. But they remained, and the new President's most formidable challenge
was to devise a means of ruling the country with fragile levers of power
that he held only tenuously in his hands.
Surmounting that challenge would have required a political magician, and
Aristide, for all his talents, proved to be less than that. As his enemies
blocked his initiatives in any way they could--through the parliament,
through the bureaucracy, through the Army--he relied increasingly on his
supporters in the streets, thereby redoubling his enemies' fears and sealing
their determination to be rid of him. When the Army moved to overthrow
him, almost the entire political class supported the coup.
Since then, Haiti's political divisions have
grown deeper than ever. American policy, meanwhile, has borne little resemblance
to President Clinton's version of a consistent, bipartisan effort to "restore
democratic government in Haiti." President Bush ap-plied sanctions that
were almost laughably ineffective; the stark division between his rhetoric
and his actions can have only strengthened the Haitian rulers' skepticism
about the true goals of American poli-cy--a skepticism that Mr. Clinton
managed to reaffirm even before his Inauguration by discarding his vow
to reverse the Bush policy of interdicting Haitian refugees at sea. In
keeping with his decision to go on forcibly returning Haitian boat people
tothe country they had fled, the Clinton Ad-ministration, for its first
fif-teen months in office, persistently rejected the notion that the Haitian
regime systematically violated its people's human rights.
The Administration's current policy dates back scarcely four months--to
last May, when the President, largely in response to pressure from the
liberal wing of the Democratic Party, issued an ultimatum to the regime
in Port-au-Prince. Thus began a policy of bluff: the United States would
prepare for an invasion in the hope that the Haitian officers would flinch
and thereby make an invasion unnecessary. If the officers refused to leave,
Mr. Clinton would then be obliged to choose between beating a humiliating
retreat and invading to force them out. Whether he realized it or not,
his decision was made in May. After that, only the Haitians had the freedom
to alter what was to come. If the Haitian military was offered the central
role in this peculiar drama, the Congress and people of the United States
were offered no role at all. Up until the last few days, the Administration,
struggling to keep its many other commitments--on trade, on crime, on
health care--chose not to expend any of its meagre supply of political
capital on what it considered a marginal issue. The result is that, as
Mr. Clinton prepares to send Americans into combat for the first time
in his Presidency, he does so with scant public support and no congressional
mandate. In their place, last Thursday evening, he offered assurances:
"the mission is achievable and limited," involving only a "transfer back
to democracy." But in Haiti there is no real democracy to "transfer back"
to: Haiti has no established political parties, no independent judiciary,
no tradition of nonviolent opposition. It has only a popular movement
that will now be saddled, in a fiercely nationalistic country, with the
burden of American sponsorship; an exiled and deeply controversial President;
and a collection of entrenched political actors still determined to fight
him. It is unclear what "nation-building" actually is, or how it might
work; but it seems inarguable that if any country was ever in need of
such a thing it is Haiti. Yet Mr. Clinton was at pains to insist that
"our soldiers will not be involved in rebuilding Haiti or its economy."
Ever since Somalia, nation-building has been a dirty word in discussions
of American foreign policy. And yet the similarity to the way the Somalia
operation unfolded is almost haunting. An American President sends troops
into a failed state, maintaining all the while that the problems to be
confronted are limited. (In Somalia, it was famine; the clan warfare that
had caused the famine went almost unmentioned.) The troops, the Presi-dent
announces, can be withdrawn within months, and then the entire matter
will be handed over to the United Nations. The President makes no effort
to secure the endorsement of Congress or to propose steps that might offer
some chance of confronting the deeper problems of the country in question.
Of course, it was Mr. Bush who bequeathed
to Mr. Clinton not only the intervention in Somalia but the accompanying
philosophical vacuum of how to think about America's role in the post-Cold
War world. Mr. Clinton has offered no Clinton Doctrine to fill it; perhaps
such ideological clarity is no longer possible. But more useful than the
formulation of any doctrine would be a willingness to explain and to educate,
to talk frankly about history and about politics, and to create an informed
citizenry, ready to consider America's behavior in the world not as an
unwelcome distraction but as a matter of moral and political responsibility.
This Mr. Clinton has not yet begun to do, preferring to hope that, once
having preserved America's "credibility," he can extract the troops and
leave Haiti in a marginally bettered state. His impulse to free the Haitian
people from what he rightly called "the most violent regime in our hemisphere"
is unexceptionable. But it cannot have escaped his notice that on the
very day he addressed the nation concerning an imminent invasion of Haiti
the last handful of Marines straggled back from the failed mission to
Somalia. Amid all the hubbub over Haiti, the troops came unhailed, almost
forgotten; they had left behind a still chaotic country and forty-four
dead, but few of their countrymen seemed even to notice their return.