Round 2 for US nation-building in Haiti

As the US puts its soldiers' boots on Haitian soil for the second time in a decade, questions are arising about what went wrong the first time, when the Clinton administration sent 20,000 Marines in 1994 to return to power a president deposed by a military coup.

The idea then was to provide Haiti with the tools it needed - a clean national police, a competent and impartial judiciary, fair elections, and the foundation for economic development - to build the democracy it had never become.

This time, the marines' assignment appears to be much more limited - at least initially: to secure Port-au-Prince's airport and looted port so that much-needed supplies can begin flowing in again.

But coming as it does on the heels of America's deep involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Haiti expedition is again putting a spotlight on the idea of nation-building. As the US and the international community debate how to help Haiti, questions mount about why such efforts work in some cases and not in others - and what lessons Haiti's recent experience may hold for other nation-building projects.

On Monday, with Aristide's departure still fresh, Haitians were preoccupied with other problems: first, an interim government council that would be headed up by former Supreme Court Justice Boniface Alexandre. "We're working hard on that, but it will be impossible to name a government before a day or two," said opposition leader Evans Paul. Mr. Paul is rumored to be a likely candidate for a government post.

Among other issues is what becomes of the armed rebels. Some entered parts of the capital and worked with national police in the initial hours after Aristide's departure to secure sections of city from armed pro-Aristide gangs. Marines took up positions at the presidential palace Monday as rebel leader Guy Philippe, who had said he would enter the presidential palace, instead established a presence across the plaza in police headquarters.

It is also unclear whether a political opposition that has never mustered much popular support can become a voice for more than the small entrepreneurial class. And to whom will Haiti's masses of poor turn, now that their leader has fled?

Representatives of Haiti's civil society say the international role will be crucial in rebuilding, and that Haiti offers a key lesson: focus on institutions, not individuals.

In 1994, the Americans "based their whole relationship with Haiti on one man ... but when [Aristide] went bad, it doomed the effort," says Andre Apaid, head of the Group of 184, a leading opposition group. "This time the international community needs to work with a broader base of Haitian society."

Nation-building remains a tough sell to Americans, who tend to focus on exit strategy. But willingness to stay is key to success, experts say. "With countries that have reached the level of disintegration of Haiti, you have to be prepared to stay for a long time," says Marina Ottaway, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "With Haiti, we really went in thinking before everything else about how fast we could get out."

Under pressure from a skeptical Congress, the Clinton administration agreed to an exit strategy for Haiti that would curtail much of the US presence within two years. After elections in 2000 that many condemned as fraudulent, the US rallied the European Union and international financial institutions to cut off most assistance.

"The Clinton administration - whose nation-building competence was largely discredited as a result of Somalia - had to proceed cautiously," says James Dobbins, who was Clinton's envoy to Haiti for two years after 1994 and worked on Afghanistan under the Bush administration. "The fears they had to answer then were of mission creep, so they agreed to an exit strategy - but that was not compatible with getting the job done."

Mr. Dobbins, who is now director of international security affairs at the RAND Corp., says putting a failed state back on its feet requires three investments from the international community: people, money, and time. The last Haiti effort was shortchanged on money and time, he says, while the one shortfall in the Iraq reconstruction project may be in manpower.

"We're putting into Iraq in the first year 100 times more monetary assistance than our whole effort in Haiti," Dobbins says. "You can argue that Iraq is a larger and a more important project, but not 100 times more important."

The issue of "importance" of a particular country leads to the question of why undertake nation-building projects at all. With Iraq and Afghanistan the threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have been cited.

But what of little Haiti? The Caribbean country has emerged as a growing link in the hemisphere's drug trade as law enforcement has collapsed and fallen to corruption. Threats of a mass exodus of Haitians to US shores have also been cited. The functioning democratic institutions a successful nation-building program would help create are remedies to both problems, experts say.

Citing development of the national police as a "relative success story" of the Clinton program, Dobbins says that "withered on the vine" after aid was cut off. Critics say Aristide had made much of the police his personal domain by then anyway.

But domestic politics offers another explanation for the US focus - and failure - in Haiti. Dobbins notes that of all US nation-building efforts, "Haiti has been the most partisanly controversial."

Republicans, always disdainful of Aristide's leftist rhetoric, have lent moral and financial support to the opposition. On the other hand, the Congressional Black Caucus emphasized Aristide's status of a democratically elected leader and labeled US abandonment of Aristide as "racist."

Pierre Robert Auguste, president of an association of entrepreneurs in Haiti that is part of the Group of 184, disagrees that US Republicans were involved in undermining Aristide. "Yes, they held seminars about building civil society, but that's the kind of thing we need," he says.

Others say the fact that US experience in Haiti is so recent should help in avoiding past mistakes. "We have a memory that cautions in favor of building up institutions and not a man," says Mischa Gaillard, a prominent opposition member. "It's our job to do, but for the international community to help they need partners in Haiti to work with."

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