The United States’ initial response to the Haiti earthquake has been almost entirely military. The U.S. armed forces control the Port-au-Prince airport. The U.S. Navy is assessing and trying to repair ruined port facilities. U.S. Army cargo aircraft and helicopters are delivering aid, while military search-and-rescue teams try to save survivors.
This is not unusual. The military was the first U.S. agency to respond to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and to Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Perhaps the world’s priorities are out of whack, but no country in the world budgets enough to maintain a permanent civilian rapid-reaction agency able to respond to massive natural disasters. During the first few days after a large-scale disaster – when transportation infrastructure has been destroyed and the priority is saving lives – only the military has the manpower, the boats, the helicopters and the equipment to do the job.
Still, the U.S. military’s massive deployment in the days following the Haitian earthquake has raised complaints – some valid, others not so much. As Abigail Poe noted on the “Just the Facts” program blog yesterday, some relief agencies charge that U.S. military air traffic controllers, giving priority to flights transporting soldiers and marines, delayed or rerouted flights bringing medical and relief supplies. “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti,” said France’s international cooperation minister.Â These concerns deserve a response that ensures a proper balance between security concerns and urgent aid delivery needs.
Other criticisms, however, have been more ideological than practical. Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez said Sunday that the U.S. operation was “occupying Haiti undercover,” while Bolivian President Evo Morales said yesterday he would go to the United Nations to seek condemnation of the U.S. “occupation.”
This charge makes little sense. Why the United States would want to find itself governing Haiti, with its myriad social and economic challenges, is unclear. Certainly, such a mission would be hugely unpopular among U.S. voters.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, some observers see the U.S. deployment as a model for U.S. military action worldwide. Writing on Newsweek’s website, John Barry argues that “whole of government solutions” make little sense in this context, and that the Pentagon should be given control over the United States’ Haiti rebuilding effort.
[T]he only entity on the planet with the capacity to bring help to Haiti on the scale needed is the U.S. military. The United Nations will find it impolitic to admit this; the big international relief groups, proud of their noncombatant status, will shy from acknowledging it. But it is the reality.
This is true at the beginning of the disaster, when lives must be saved and no infrastructure exists. A few months from now, however, as Haiti moves from the emergency phase to the long rebuilding phase, military leadership will no longer be necessary, and the military presence should draw down dramatically.
Engineering, productive, food-security and medical projects should be the province of civilian agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, employing Haitians wherever possible. And the UN mission can handle security, as it did ably until January 12.
The military is the only option in Haiti for now. But the “occupation” phase must be short.