President Barack Obama’s decision to send 10,000 U.S. troops to provide muscle for the relief effort in chaotic, quake-ravaged Haiti was perhaps inevitable, but does not come without risks for the United States. From all accounts, public despair continues to mount as the distribution effort, hampered by destroyed roads and communications, lags behind the build-up of relief supplies. Hunger, thirst, and the spread of disease could easily bring out the machetes, tipping the scale into rioting and civil disorder. The island certainly has a history of it.
If that happens, with Haitian security forces in disarray, the challenge of restoring order will fall first on the 7,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force. Consisting largely of Brazilian military, the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti — known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH — has been in Haiti since 2004 and has developed ties with the country and its people.
Even so, that’s a thin line to confront widespread unrest, should it occur. The next line is the American military presence, currently taking up protective positions at the airport in Port-au-Prince and the damaged harbor, as well as helping with the relief effort.
Washington’s top military man, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters the troops’ mission is humanitarian. But the line between humanitarian operations and security can be a thin one, and Mullen has also told the president that the soldiers’ rules of engagement for the mission are to shoot only in self-defense.
When it comes to U.S. military operations in Haiti, history is not on the side of the United States. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson sent in the marines to Haiti, ostensibly to steady the country, then beset by coup and counter-coup, but actually to protect American business interests. Wilson took control of the Haitian National Bank and transferred $500,000 to the United States for “safekeeping.” A virtual occupation, with the U.S. marine commander acting as provincial governor, remained in force until 1934.
While that memory made be distant and faded, many Haitians remember that in 1994, American troops led an intervention force to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. From his exile in South Africa, Aristide has publicly volunteered to return to help his devastated country. No one has taken him up on his offer, but it is an unwelcome distraction for Obama’s effort in Haiti. Of course, there emphatically are no dots to connect — to use a trendy phrase — between the U.S. military presence and Aristide’s offer. Hopefully the Haitians will realize that.