Thursday, November 23, 2006

Remembering Haiti - Thinking About Iraq

I'm remembering Haiti. I was there twice, in 1991 and 1993, to help out in a rural hospital. Those visits taught me lessons so powerful that they are permanently impressed on my psyche, lessons that inform my judgment about the fate of nations. The 1991 visit proved to me that a corrupt and ruthless dictator can utterly control a nation, and that internal resistance to such a dictator is futile. The 1993 visit, and its aftermath, proved to me that a functional nation cannot be built unless it is built from within by capable and committed citizens.

In 1991 the post-Duvallier bad guys were in charge and the country was under embargo. For one week I experienced a hell on earth where food was so scarce for most Haitians that no creature on four legs had survived. The fortunate ones were building small boats and launching them into a fearful ocean, to flee the terror of paramilitary gangs and the desperation of utter poverty. Any Haitian who spoke against those in power could look forward to a certain and merciless end. My safety, as long as I did not attempt to organize or support a resistance, was relatively assured by my American citizenship - a priceless commodity anywhere in those days. But the embargo was ineffective: neither the dictator and his henchmen nor the rich oligarchs were hampered in their control of the country or in their ability to live well. When I returned home I cried bitter tears for the Haitians, and I supported an international effort to overthrow the thugs who ruled Haiti.

By 1993 my prayers had been answered by the U.N. (read U.S.) mission to Haiti that installed Aristide as head of government. Food became plentiful, bicycles and even motorcycles were everywhere, children paraded to school, roads were repaired, and the paramilitaries evaporated. Troops in U.N. blue helmets directed traffic in Port au Prince, and the people were optimistic. Little did I know that all this progress was a mirage. The underlying culture of Haiti was ready to reassert itself as soon as the international presence diminished sufficiently.

Sadly, the underlying culture of Haiti soon reasserted itself. Corruption became the hallmark of the new government, just as it had been for the gangsters. The oligarchs resumed piloting their Mercedes' around ox carts and even human-powered carts on the new highways. Stronger members of the poor masses in Port au Prince's endless slums began to acquire guns, and remnants of the paramilitaries began to group together in remote areas. Aristide was exiled, and a power struggle ensued over control of the pitiful assets of the country. Haiti, which had never in its history developed the institutions of democracy or a functioning economy, regressed into chaos once again.

Why do these memories haunt me today? Because in early 2003 the United States national leadership, despite having world class intelligence resources, concluded that invading Iraq was a positive strategy. President Bush and his inner circle disregarded the strong possibility that Iraq would disintegrate into chaos after Saddam was deposed, not understanding that the country would reassert its unstable underlying culture of tribalism and sectarianism. As we now know so well, this is what happened and what is happening, with no end in sight. As in Haiti, when the dictator was removed, leadership and control dissolved. Iraq regressed, until now the people likely wish they lived under the old regime and the war and "liberation" was a bad dream.

These developments indicate that perhaps the old style of pragmatism in dealing with unsavory governments wasn't so bad. Achieving quantum progress toward a better society through regime change has proved impossible in both Haiti and Iraq. Neither country had the capability to create an effective successor government. Consequently, dealing with the unsavory governments, offering public carrots and private sticks, is likely to be a more productive strategy than forcing an uncertain regime change. Certainly the U.S., with its immense wealth and power, could move troublesome existing governments in a positive direction. It has all the traditional tools of diplomacy, including the use of limited force as was done with the "no-fly zone". After seeing the results of Bush's approach, don't you think pragmatism deserves another chance?


Ron said...

Fascinating posting.
This matter of underlying culture is so oddly overlooked in communities and yet it is fundamental to corporations. Culture is hard to change for a host of reasons but it is this "soft" element of development that deserves more attention.

Thomas LB said...

Well, pragmatism has its risks, too.

The US supported the Shah in Iran, even though he was a rotten individual, and when the people finally rose up and threw him out we ended up with egg on our face. They're still mad at us.

To a lesser extent, the same thing happened with Marcos in the Philippines and Pinoche in Chile.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

And that's probably the best we can do: make sure our heart is in the right place, and let the chips fall where they may.

Ron said...

Actually, the support of the Shah was not the start of the story. The leader before the Shah was moving to nationalize oil so the CIA ousted. The organic push within Iran was more nationalist than free market. We squelched that.

History indicates that development of societies is like the development of children - it seems to go through certain stages. We ignore these natural forces and phases at our peril.

Life Hiker said...

Pragmatism comes in many flavors. The U.S. must engage the world, but, as you say, from our heart.

Insulting guys like Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes from our angry gut, not our heart, and achieves nothing. They are bad leaders, but the current U.S. president has also caused untold harm with his poor decisions and poorly chosen words.

Will the American people ever elect a president with the qualities that we look for in a great nation - beginning with a good heart? If we did, I would feel better about our ability to be pragmatically effective.