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Haiti: Clinton's Photo-Op War a Lesson for the War on Terror


by Austin Bay
February 14, 2006

The latest news from Haiti isn't good, particularly for Clinton administration legacy polishers. Haiti's failure, however, should have instructive resonance for the United States if it truly intends to fight and win the "long war" against tyranny and terror.

Haiti's current bout of living hell began two years ago, when a rebellion ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his corrupt government. Aristide's collapse solved nothing -- criminal and political violence continued. This week, Jordanian peacekeepers serving with the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti fired on a crowd protesting the recent presidential election. The troops may have killed at least one protestor. As I write this column, a U.N. spokesman disputes the charge.

The United Nations hoped the election would restore public confidence and calm, but at best the vote was a temporary palliative.

And that's the damning word: "temporary." Add a synonym like "short-term" or the phrase "sitcom attention span," and you'll finger the strategic error and what is definitely an American strategic weakness. In domestic political terms, "the next election" and sometimes "the next news cycle" too often define the length of commitment to a policy or a program.

Haiti is a political and ecological wreck -- its corrupt, tyrannical and often psychopathic leaders deserve the harshest historical blame. However, the United States -- given the Clinton administration's 1994 invasion -- now bears significant responsibility for the continuing failure.

Here's a quote from a column of mine published in September 1994, just before the Clinton administration overthrew the Haitian junta led by Gen. Raoul Cedras: "The (Clinton) administration has not prepared the American people for intervention; the costly decades of economic and political reclamation Haiti requires seem to rate, at most, a whisper in the Oval Office."

The column concluded: "The idea that an international force of 6,000 peacekeepers will replace U.S. forces is a Clintonite fig leaf. Pray that threat and bluster cause the generals to grab their money and run, for the long-suffering Haitian people deserve another shot at democracy. If the U.S. invades, however, resolving Haiti's political, ecological and economic problems becomes a lengthy -- and bloody -- American chore."

In July 1995, I wrote that "winning" in Haiti required at least three decades of sustained effort. A friend of mine who had just visited the country said Haitians believed five decades was more accurate.

The Clinton administration did not "sell" Haiti as the "long, hard slog" those of us who know that nation understood it would be. I give President Bill Clinton credit for having -- at the intellectual level -- a clear understanding of Haiti's embedded problems. However, he merely talked solutions, he did not craft the long-term, sustaining "policy structure" required to achieve those goals. For Clinton, Haiti was a photo-op war.

In its September 2002 National Security Strategy statement, the Bush administration made economic and political development one of the three "strategic areas of emphasis." The other two were defense and diplomacy. The three D's -- defense, diplomacy and development -- are strategically complementary, as well as rhetorically consonant.

Sustained, successful economic and political development programs are absolutely essential to winning the global War on Terror, which President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now sometimes call "the long war." Poverty may not create international terrorists, but poverty, social turmoil, lack of infrastructure and weak political systems attract them.

The Bush administration has built the policy foundation for sustaining development and begun implementing development operations. I visited Djibouti (East Africa) in June 2005. CENTCOM's operations in that country exemplify the kind of "long-term" counter-terror operations the United States must conduct and sustain for the next four decades -- political and economic development programs intertwined with security assistance, security training and intelligence sharing.

But there's also a fourth D -- Determination. Bush is determined, but his administration has not "wired the long-term political will" to sustain the long war. Al-Qaida's jihadists plotted a multigenerational war. That means defeating them requires a multi-administration effort, one that will avoid the whipsaw of the U.S. political cycle.

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