Ending Chaos in Haiti Is Not a Job for U.S. Troops
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The assassination of Haiti’s beleaguered president, Jovenal Moise, allegedly by a posse of Colombians and Haitian-Americans, leaves that ill-starred country in turmoil yet again.
Two different prime ministers are claiming power; the first lady is recovering from gunshot wounds in a Miami hospital; and Moise’s security detail is under investigation for allegedly failing to lift a finger to defend him. Armed gangs are roaming the streets as civil order — never strong in Haiti — is breaking down at an accelerating pace.
What is the outlook for the hemisphere’s poorest country, and what is the role for the U.S. in helping it calm the chaos?
When I was commander of U.S. Southern Command in the late 2000s, I visited Haiti often. While conditions were never promising, there was at least a veneer of civilization, mostly created by a United Nations peacekeeping force led by Brazil with troops from a number of nations, mostly from the Americas. The mission dragged on for more than a decade before wrapping up in 2017.
While the U.S. probably had the most at risk from a devolution of order in Haiti (notably from a potential wave of refugees, as occurred in the 1990s), it had no troops assigned to the UN mission. Given U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington needed to rely on those other nations to stabilize Haiti.
Each time I flew into the capital, Port-au-Prince, I was struck by the warmth of the Haitian people, the smiles of small children in their brightly colored clothes and the elegant French spoken by the national leaders in the crumbling palaces at the center of the city.
I would meet with the Brazilian general who commanded the UN mission to get his assessment, which was always more or less the same: “Admiral, the situation is stable, barely. But the economic picture is terrible, the gangs and narcotics are just below the surface, and sooner or later, the situation will collapse.”
I would return to my headquarters in Miami and have the operations team review and tighten the extensive contingency plans we maintained to deal with a wave of refugees — which included interdicting rafts at sea and returning them to Haiti or, worst case, offloading them in a refugee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was a constant worry, and as I left the command to head to Europe in 2009, I was pessimistic about the future.
But somehow Haiti has held together, weathering outbreaks of various pathogens (particularly cholera, tied to a lack of safe, fresh water and possibly mismanagement by the peacekeeping forces), earthquakes including the 2010 disaster that flattened much of the capital, vicious seasonal hurricanes and rising levels of drug trafficking.
The question is whether Haiti can remain calm as conspiracy theories and a power struggle magnify the effect of the presidential assassination. For the first time in a tortuous decade, Haitian leaders are asking for a U.S. intervention, an extraordinary request given the negative history of the U.S. military’s various incursions into the country over the past two centuries. (A good portion of the Haitian people are more leery of turning to Washington for help.)
The U.S. has sent a small team of investigators to help look into the assassination, but it should not step into the breech on a larger scale unilaterally, despite the dangers of a complete meltdown and an attendant refugee crisis.
The potential costs of a mission are high. It would set off the usual alarm bells across Latin America and the Caribbean, justified given America’s track record of military interventions. It would require a costly deployment of troops overseas just as President Joe Biden’s administration tries to end the so-called forever wars in the Middle East. And it would be a difficult and risky mission with uncertain metrics and outcomes — as was Afghanistan.
The best approach is clearly civil and multilateral. On the civil side, Washington can send an interagency operational team with significant representation from the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the Coast Guard, and other agencies that can draw on the lessons of previous engagement in Haiti and in Colombia at the height of its insurgency and narco-trafficking challenges.
But the military portion of such a mission should come from the UN, with an emphasis on the larger nations in the region that were part of the earlier peacekeeping effort: Brazil, Argentina and Chile. It would ideally be under the umbrella of the Organization of American States, which would bring in other actors. Canada also has significant expertise in peacekeeping operations.
Obviously, it will be a heavy lift to get a mission together given the international effects of Covid-19, especially the spreading delta variant. Haiti, which was spared early in the pandemic, has seen cases skyrocket and is the only nation in the Americas yet to launch a vaccination program. Both Brazil and Chile are in some level of domestic challenge — Brazil with the worst Covid crisis in the hemisphere and Chile with a constitutional rewrite looming.
The U.S. could offer financial support to such a mission and logistical support from the U.S. Southern Command and its supporting component, U.S. Army South. The U.S. could potentially lead the maritime side of such a mission, with the land component headed by a regional general, probably from Brazil.
As always in Haiti, the combination of bad leadership and bad luck conspire to create seemingly unwinnable conditions. Poverty, disease and natural disasters continue to plague a nation that deserves a break. It will require a combined effort by the entire hemisphere to help hold Haiti together and prevent a surge of refugees.
The U.S. will need to exert leadership, but it must call on others to act collectively in terms of on-the-ground execution. America doesn’t need another forever war, this time in the Caribbean.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."
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