Sat, 01 Oct 1994

Is invading Haiti just a beginning?

By Jonathan Power

LONDON (JP): It was only 12 hours after American marines turned out the lights in the American embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, that President Bill Clinton went on television to say he was ready to order an invasion of Haiti.

Has Clinton read his Wordsworth? In his ode to Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the slave revolt and father of Haitian independence, Wordsworth wrote, "Thy friends are exultations, agonies. And love, and man's unconquerable mind." But Clinton will need more friends than these if he is to avoid in Haiti what befell him in Somalia.

Haiti and Somalia have one thing in common. They present what one 19th century historian called "a caricature of civilization". Both countries have allowed a mixture of torrid personal ambition and gross administrative incompetence, combined with a ruthless application of the most sordid and undisciplined forms of violence to destroy any semblance of normal life and ordinary discourse.

The question now is does a new imperial act, albeit one carried out with the blessing of the UN, offer better promise of a different order?

The Somalia effort was in the end quite counterproductive. As the Irish journalist Edward O'Loghlin recently reported, Somalia now "bears a growing resemblance to the post-apocalyptic world of the Australian Mad Max movies, where outlaw bands scout the wasteland in weird DIY vehicles -- technicals -- to scavenge the debris of civilization, killing the weak for the contents of their gasoline tanks." And this in a country, one of the very few in the world, where everybody is of one race and religion and speaks the same language.

The moral apparently "learned" in Washington from this terrible experience in Somalia is not only to be quick in but to be quick out.

This, I believe, is the opposite lesson to be drawn from Somalia, and certainly from Haitian history. The only time either of these countries built up any kind of economic and social infrastructure was when they were occupied. There's not much of the Italian and British legacy to be seen in Somalia these days but there was a time, not so very long ago, when Mogadishu was a city of fine buildings and there were functioning hospitals and schools and a judicial system that worked.

It started to fall apart in the days of its post-independence dictator, Siad Barre. Part of it was his mercurial despotism and part was the undisciplined rivalry of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in seeking proxy allies in their urge to keep the Horn of Africa and its strategic outlook on the entrance to the Red Sea firmly in their own grasps. It was a quest whose only legacy was an enormous stockpile of destructive armaments. (And so it was in many other parts of Africa.)

To believe, as the Bush and Clinton administrations appeared to, that such a mess could be sorted out in a matter of months was naivete of the highest order. Then, last Oct. 3, when 18 American soldiers were killed in a firefight, Clinton decided to cut and run.

Haiti can't be allowed to frighten off the U.S. in this manner. On the contrary, Haiti should be the first test of a country colored blue, where the UN, with the Americans playing the single most important role, can embark on a form of benign colonialism. To put Haiti upright on its feet is going to take at least a generation. It will need staying power, commitment and money too. It requires the long road over the short road.

If Somalia showed anything, it shows the weaknesses of trying to sort out a post-colonial mess with just a veneer of military might. The British did not rule India (or Hong Kong today), nor the French Indochina, nor the Dutch Indonesia with an armed veneer. They administered their fiefdoms down to the village hospital, school and courtroom. And where it worked well it was because they were there long enough to leave a house in working order.

One can cavil about the unjustness of one nation ruling another and indeed it has had many unpleasant arrogant and even racist features and, in Asia, at least, the colonialists overstayed their welcome. In North and South America they stayed roughly long enough to get things going. But, in Africa, they probably stayed too short a time, often only for three or four generations.

Haiti, thanks in part to the heroics of Toussaint L'Ouverture, banished the French nearly 200 years ago -- although, under Napoleon, they returned for a brief period. And the Americans occupied Haiti for 18 years in the early years of this century. Simply put, colonialism did not last long enough. Haiti is good place to start coloring the map blue. And after that we can think of a few other places ... Somalia, Zaire and Afghanistan. Invading Haiti should just be the beginning of the serious business of rebuilding failed states.