Marines to aid Haitian earthquake relief. But who's in command?

Some 5,700 US marines and soldiers are expected to join Haitian earthquake relief efforts this weekend. The UN says its peacekeeping force should be in command. The US says no.

UN Photo Logan Abassi / Reuters
MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) peacekeepers work to find survivors at the collapsed UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday.

The marines are about to hit the shores of Port-au-Prince – an arrival that would almost certainly send shivers up spines anywhere else in Latin America.

But amid the Haitian earthquake relief effort – in a country that has no military of its own and has hosted an international peacekeeping force since 2004 – the arrival is unlikely to cause many ripples among locals.

Yet the dispatch of some 2,200 marines – as well as 3,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division – is raising some command and assignment questions.

When the troops arrive, perhaps this weekend, who will be in charge, given that the Haitian government is almost disintegrated and the 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, is dealing with its own losses?

Will the 5,500 US military personnel be part of an international, or an American, security effort?

Who's the boss?

“It’s fully desirable that all these forces should be coordinated with the UN MINUSTAH commander there,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday.

US officials, on the other hand, say that while the US may “coordinate” with the peacekeeping operation’s leadership, US troops will be under American command.

“We’ll be under US command supporting a UN mission on behalf of the Haitian government and the Haitian people,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, when asked Thursday to clarify the command structure for what is expected to be a three-month deployment of US forces.

Learning from the tsunami

The command question may cause some initial confusion, but it is likely to be quickly ironed out – especially given the recent experience the US has in dispatching the military to disaster zones, say US security and international relief experts.

“We sent 8,000 marines to Indonesia after the tsunami, and that intervention stands out as one of the best examples of use of the US military in a disaster,” says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense who is now an analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Not only did the Marines accomplish significant humanitarian objectives, Mr. Korb notes, but America’s image in Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim country – shot up as a result. “The use of the military in this way really undermines the Al Qaeda narrative,” he says.

Haiti: a country without a government

The Haiti case is different, however, in part because the Haitian government is so weak, and in some estimations practically nonexistent, after the earthquake.

President René Préval is alive, but the Parliament and several ministry buildings collapsed, taking the lives of as-yet uncertain numbers of legislators and government officials.

The US says it is coordinating with the Haitian government – by which it appears to mean a little-seen President Préval – but acknowledges that in the short-term there will be little government to deal with.

“There’s no question that the Haitian Government is challenged,” the State Department’s Mr. Crowley says. “They have received a very serious blow.” But he adds that the US objective is “not only to provide lifesaving support to the Haitian people but to rebuild the capacity of the Haitian Government.”

Help wanted, calling Cuba?

The US needs to remember that it is part of an international effort, something Korb says the US sometimes forgets. In the case of Haiti, “We’ll be the first among equals, because of our size and proximity and our capabilities,” he says, “but we shouldn’t limit our approach to just what we can do.”

In that vein, Korb offers a politically daring proposition: The US should consider tapping the expertise of neighboring Cuba to help address Haiti’s needs.

“We should stop and think that Cuba right next door has some of the best doctors in the world,” he says. “We should see about flying them in.”

At the same time, the US must be careful not to run roughshod over historical sensitivities in the region about US military interventions.

“We’re not taking over Haiti," said Crowley. "We are helping to stabilize Haiti. We’re helping to provide them lifesaving support and material, and we’re going to be there over the long term to help Haiti rebuild.”


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