Head-First into the Haitian Quagmire

HAVRE DE GRACE — Haiti is about the size of Maryland, but fortunately nobody in the Clinton administration seems to have noticed that. Otherwise, it might have been reason enough for this bewildered White House to put Mickey Steinberg in charge of our policy there.

Actually, the Maryland lieutenant governor might be an improvement. So might a committee chosen at random from the telephone book. As refugees continue to flee Haiti and drown by the score in the sea, it's beginning to look more and more as though simple desperation will determine what our policy is going to be.


Driven by domestic political considerations and without any coherent philosophy of its own concerning foreign affairs, the administration has donned its fatigues and flak jacket. That it will soon launch itself in a proud martial swan dive headfirst into the Haitian quagmire seems almost inevitable.

The last time the United States invaded Haiti, in 1915, there were at least a few geopolitical reasons for doing so. The civil war of the moment was distressing American investors in the country's banks and railroads, but, far more significant to the liberal Democrat in the White House, Germany was said to be negotiating with Haiti for a naval base at Mole St. Nicholas, across the Windward Passage from Cuba. So Woodrow Wilson sent in the troops, and they stayed for 19 difficult years.


The Clintonians must not read history, or if they do, they must harbor the delusion that it's irrelevant. Smarter people than they have been trying for 200 years to make a coherent nation out of Haiti, sometimes under considerably more favorable circumstances than exist today, and have never come close to success.

If the Haitian-policy hawks in the administration and their allies in the Congressional Black Caucus really believe that American military intervention can end tribal bloodshed in Haiti and make a country out of chaos, they ought to think about practicing in Rwanda first. The ignorance and historic racial and social animosities our leaders seem blithely ready to take on in Haiti are no more tractable than the murderous hatreds of the Tutsis and the Hutus.

It might be worth recalling some of the highlights of the last American effort toward on-the-ground nation-building in Haiti.

In 1915, Haiti was designated a political and economic protectorate of the U.S. The puppet Haitian president was required to appoint American citizens to collect customs duties, head the police and supervise public works and health programs.

A new constitution written in Washington (Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt was said to have been one of the authors) was offered to the Haitian Congress.

Every previous Haitian constitution since the country's independence in 1804 had prohibited the ownership of land by whites, and the new one repealed that restriction. The Haitian Congress balked and refused to ratify it, but Washington simply ordered the president to dissolve the Congress, and then had the Marines conduct a national plebiscite in which the new constitution was almost unanimously approved.

The first American occupation of Haiti required about 2,000 troops, surely but a fraction of what the Pentagon would insist upon today. It enjoyed some short-term successes, producing a well-trained national police force, new public-works facilities and dramatic improvement in public health.

But no occupation by a foreign power, however benign, is popular, and most become untenable. When the troops left in 1934, the reforms they had instituted quickly began to unravel. The Haiti of Francois Duvalier, who came to power in 1957, was in many respects as primitive as the Haiti of the ex-slave Jean Jacques Dessalines, who routed Napoleon's troops in 1804.


It could be argued that the occupation left Haiti more stable than it was before, but it moved the country not an inch toward democracy. In the 70 years before 1915, there were 22 dictators; in the 60 years since 1934, there have been fewer than a dozen, and from 1950 to 1986 there were only three -- Paul Magloire and the two Duvaliers, Francois and Jean-Claude, pere et fils.

That stability, good or bad, was due to a certain consistency in American policy. The more durable Haitian dictators may have been sons of bitches, but as has been remarked of other second-tier world leaders with whom the United States has cooperated, they were our sons of bitches. They were dutifully anti-communist when that seemed to matter, and they didn't flood our shores with illegal immigrants. In return, we left them and their unsavory regimes alone.

Mr. Clinton doesn't have to invade Haiti. If he doesn't want to accept the refugees, there are other ways to discourage them. But if he does take the plunge, he will find it a lot harder and a lot more expensive than it was for Woodrow Wilson, and while some his political friends may applaud him, history suggests that most Haitians will not.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.