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Best-Laid Plans of Occupiers

Amy Wilentz is the author of "Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" and the novel "Martyrs' Crossing." She is at work on a book about the recall and California.

In October of 1994, I flew down to Haiti as part of a press contingent with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his entourage, as well as Jesse Jackson, human rights advocate Randall Robinson, deputy national security advisor Sandy Berger, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Those were heady times. The United States was reinstating Aristide, the elected president who had been ousted three years earlier in a coup engineered by corrupt military and business interests. As we flew in over the broad shantytowns of Port-au-Prince, the people down in the alleys below began to dance in celebration. We took American military helicopters from the airport to the presidential palace for the ceremonies. Afterward, an ecstatic Aristide said that he and Bill Clinton were “twins.” In Haiti, people referred to Aristide’s reinstatement simply, and almost reverently, as “The Return.”

Everything seemed possible that day. The U.S. had apparently committed itself to helping Haiti find a path that would lead it away from the brutality, corruption and poverty that had engulfed the small Caribbean nation during the 30-year era of the Duvalier family dictatorship -- and before. With economic aid, the reinstatement of the legitimate president and the right attitude, it seemed all the democratic elements were at hand.

Compared with our current involvement in Iraq, Haiti should have been easy. It was a fairly simple task to get our forces and materiel in place, since Haiti is a just hop across the water from Florida’s coast. Once landed, the American troops experienced very little open resistance, although of course there was grumbling among Haitians, some of it loud. Also, the Americans were well informed, at least about some aspects of Haitian society. Our State Department had spent many long years getting inside certain sectors and was definitely well acquainted with what passes for Haiti’s elite. Among U.S. officials, there were those who had some command of the local languages, Creole and French.

And most Haitians felt positive about Aristide’s return and the future of democracy in Haiti; they’d voted massively for him in 1990. From top to bottom of the society, Haitians also thought -- or at least hoped -- that the Americans would help invigorate Haiti’s economy, which had for decades if not centuries been notorious for its structural weaknesses and for corruption at almost every level. In addition, the U.S. was going to help train a new professional Haitian police force -- one that could not be bribed; one that would not beat people at the behest of wealthy bosses; one that would shoot straight, and shoot only when it was necessary and legal.

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It had the makings of a perfect occupation -- if such a thing exists. Yet today, Haiti’s democracy is a shambles, the police are erratic and unreliable (the Americans’ six-day training sessions in ethics and human values do not seem to have wrought a meaningful transformation) and the electricity comes on only sporadically. Aristide, a former priest who now lives with his wife and two young daughters in a sprawling mansion in a new area of the capital, has lost the respect of his people, has shut his eyes to corruption, turned his back on important values like freedom of speech and assembly, more or less stolen a legislative election and allowed his partisans to commit terrible acts of violence against his enemies.

This happened even though everyone aboard that plane in 1994 -- no matter their personal or political misgivings -- thought that what the U.S. was doing that day was not only the right thing but a great thing both for Haiti and for the moral standing of the U.S. in this hemisphere.

What went wrong, and what lessons can we take away from Haiti and apply in Iraq?

First, although an occupying nation cannot be entirely faulted for the personal flaws of the local leader it supports, it will be blamed for his sins, and the future of the occupied country will suffer for them. The sad fact is that the U.S. brought Aristide back to Haiti already suspecting that he was not going to be a very reliable partner. The Clinton administration was forced to accept him because there was no one else: He was the Haitians’ chosen, legitimate leader.

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Even though Aristide turned out to be a personal and political failure, he was popular with Haitians. In Iraq, there is no such figure of general legitimacy. Ahmad Chalabi, favored by some in the administration, is a virtual unknown to most Iraqis, and many of those who know him don’t trust him. In addition, it bears saying that an Aristide, a Hamid Karzai or a Chalabi may turn out to be a Duvalier in disguise. It is worth considering whether a real democrat would even accept his imposition by a foreign power. An occupation in the modern age is by nature a series of mad political leaps of faith, in which the occupier seeks to turn the occupied country into something very much unlike its current self; overarching expectation is almost a sine qua non of such international endeavors. How else would a country like the U.S. become embroiled in such risky -- even deadly -- adventures?

Second, in Haiti, the experiment suffered from a failure to sustain commitment on the part of the American government. The Clinton administration thought it would be a pretty easy run: an elected president, a tiny nearby country, a friendly population. But things in other countries are often not what they seem to the foreigner. The elected president became less and less popular; the tiny country was filled with mountains and bad roads that made it harder to control; and the friendly population was not always so amenable, especially when it got hold of some power.

Even before Haiti failed to work out, even before American ambitions there were foiled at every turn, the U.S. pulled out, unable and unwilling to pay the political and economic cost to make things work. That cost was nowhere near the $87 billion already budgeted for Iraq and Afghanistan, and not a single American died at the hands of the Haitians.

On the eve of the bicentennial of Haitian independence from France, our former man in Haiti is tottering toward what may be the end of his political career. Popular unrest is fueling Aristide’s possible exit. On a daily basis, large demonstrations pour through the cities only to be dispersed by tear gas and gunfire (our well-trained police on the job, of course). Though a broad sector of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is cheering Aristide’s demise and praying for his ouster, they really cannot say that what will follow will be an improvement.

The final, unhappy lesson: America has had a long education in intervention (we occupied Haiti once before, for example, from 1915 to 1934), but in the end, each country is its own country. Each has its own legacy, its own unreadable, idiosyncratic culture, its own recent past and -- as in both Haiti and Iraq -- a long and alien political tradition. You can’t march in with a tool belt of solutions and fix things: It’s not a simple plumbing problem. A nation is a collection of hearts and minds and erratic human behavior, and in order to run an occupation, you must somehow deal with obscure and dangerous political land mines planted beneath your feet. Look at Israel and the West Bank, look at Syria and Lebanon. Occupation and democracy can’t coexist, and the one never engenders the other.


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