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Jan 212010

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. 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 Chávez 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.

5 Responses to “The U.S. military in Haiti”

  1. Matt H Says:

    I respect the research you do in Colombia Adam, but often when you approach the way in which the world perceives the US it is often dismissive of the history from which the world’s perceptions are framed, particularly within Latin America.

    Do you realize that you are talking about Haiti when you write, “Other criticisms, however, have been more ideological than practical. … 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.”

    A quick review of US intervention in Haiti: . When you ask why the US would want to find itself governing Haiti and simply dismissing fears of a US manipulation and occupation of more than 150 years of US intervention and occupation of Latin America, a topic I’m sure you have encountered often and are more than aware of.

    Does the US military present an overwhelming logistical and material capability in disaster relief? Yes. But one very simple question that leads to a very deep concern is why should the US military take command of the relief effort and the principal transportation infrastructure? Why is the US not subordinated another agency without the history of intervention in Haiti? The simply answer of “are you dreaming, the US will never accept that” in its simplicity is revealing – and why someone like Morales or Chavez is concerned about occupation in the Americas. The US does not take ‘orders’ from anyone, even when there are clear conflicts of ‘interests’, shall we say, because the US has a colonialist/imperialist mentality. The US military will not be subordinated and will subordinate others.

    There are over 10 000 UN troops and police in Haiti. Likely thousands of aid workers by now – it is not a question of ’security’ or personnel that the US and Canada has sent 12 000 of their own troops. There is a clear objective of the US and Canada that Haiti’s crisis be managed by North America and that if there is a conflict of interest, which Haiti’s history demonstrates undeniably there has been repeatedly since 1793, it will be the North American and not Haitian interests that will be served. We see it already, with armed troops and ’security’ (simply a stupid concept if you ask non-militarized doctors and aid workers, but readily accepted in the public of North America after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) taking precedent over the actual delivery of aid and relief.

    So your characterization of Morales and Chavez as making ‘little sense’ is devoid of a respect for context and I think falls into a repeated negation of the justifiable perception of US troops as occupiers when they are deployed in force.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    If there’s still a huge U.S. military footprint in Haiti a few months from now, I’ll agree with you. But not right now, when so many people need medical attention, clean water, or even to be pulled out of collapsed structures (though hope for that is fading fast).

    If there were an international organization with the expertise and resources to coordinate and direct an immediate response in the early days of one of these once-every-five-years disasters, then by all means the U.S. military should be submitted to it. It would be in their interest to do so, in order to avoid duplicating others’ efforts and get more return on resources.

    But that doesn’t exist. Everything is being improvised, and I don’t see any Haitian or international body seeking to control the thousands of decisions that the U.S. military is making on the fly every day this week.

    Right now, the situation is too urgent to debate the “context” of U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere (which we’re aware of, thanks). But if there hasn’t been a significant handoff and drawdown of military involvement by May or so, then we can go ahead and worry about the United States’ “other agenda” in Haiti. Then, Chávez and Morales wouldn’t sound so incredibly tone-deaf and ideologically blinkered.

    In these frantic few days, though, if the U.S. military can save lives, it would be unconscionable to have them avoid deploying because of the historical context, or to do nothing while they await orders that won’t come from anywhere else.

  3. Matt H Says:

    There was and is a massive UN mission in Haiti – yes the lead of that mission was killed in the earthquake, but both of the previous leads of the mission in the past two years have been immediately brought in to take over the mission.

    I’ve not seen reports that demonstrate that the US military pulling people from the rubble, though I’m sure there are engineers there doing this work. Most of the videos of medical treatment are from civilians not military, though I’m sure medics and doctors from the military are involved. How many of the 14 000+ soldiers from Canada and the US do you think are involved in those critical roles though? Why has so much energy gone to bringing in excess force when we both agree that the immediate situation dictated the need for medical assistance and food relief? These are hugely important questions to raise at this moment because it was US army troop planes that contributed substantially to the backlog at the airport and had medical and food supplies turned away. Because no one is apparently stepping-up in your ear-shot is a difficult argument to make, who is going to step up and say something with thousands of US troops at Haiti’s airport and port? If the US controls the entrance of supplies, who is going to start challenging the US? Venezuela is already redirecting all of its aid through the Dominican, including large shipments of oil. Yes Haiti asked the US for this support, the US military is ‘prepared’ for this kind of thing – but they seem to be ‘prepared’ in a very particular and peculiar manner that does not seem to be completely focused on relief and aid. That is the problem the first problem. The second, following from that is no one CAN step-up because the US military has overwhelmingly taken control. The criticism from all corners is demonstrative that there are people on the ground, with experience, who are deeply concerned about how decisions are being made. Its their only recourse to actually participating in the organization of relief because everyone has been shut out. And the logic will continue to follow that ‘we cannot have this debate now because the US military is the only organization capable of handling this crisis’ – right…

    A much more historic problem is that there never seems to be an appropriate time to discuss US intervention in the region. I think this claim that there should not be strong criticism because there is humanitarian work to be done is a huge misdirection, and it manipulates the fears and frustrations just as much as you claim I’m trying to do. You have assumed an inevitability of the US military and then argued that they are the only option so we have to accept it. That is exactly the point and the problem. I’m sure you are aware of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and particularly revealing would be the chapter on New Orleans. One has to be critical every step of the way, or there will not be a change to how this unfolds.

    The US has already stated that they will be in Haiti with thousands of troops for the long-term.

    I doubt they will be subordinated to the UN and there will not be an appropriate time to question why they are there.

  4. Stuart Says:

    What worries me is when the Heritage Foundation starts saying things like this: “In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake should address long-held concerns over the fragile political environment that exists in the region.” (Read: In addition having a much-awaited-for tabula rasa upon which to create a Haiti that benefits US imperial interests, Cuba is right next door, and we’ve been gnawing at the bit over that island for decades.) No one is arguing that the US military should up and leave tomorrow, but we all know how expansive, vacuous, and nebulous the term “security” has become over the past decade, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the military’s self-declared mandate becomes a mandate to “assist” Haiti in “state-building” too.

  5. carolyn simons Says:

    The troops are drawing down. So was all this just a bunch of bull about taking over? People should check things out before they make ignorant statements.

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