For all of America’s military success in the last 200-plus years, three past failures still affect our foreign policy. Most prominent is Vietnam, a fiasco that spanned three presidencies. We lost some 58,000 soldiers in what can charitably be described as a military stalemate. (No child grows up wanting to be the next Robert McNamara or McGeorge Bundy.) Incidentally, our number of dead pales in comparison to the carnage of Vietnamese soldiers on both sides, not to mention millions of civilians.
Second, there is President George W. Bush’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq — under false pretenses. Iraq should be a permanent object lesson for what not to do in avenging an attack on our country. Exhibit A is the fact that Vladimir Putin still justifies his attempts at empire building by pointing to our efforts to “liberate” Iraq. Then there is the fact that we inadvertently armed the Islamic terrorists who seek to annihilate us. All this led to what Jon Stewart aptly termed “Mess O’Potamia.”
The third conflagration that has lasting implications is our short-lived but well-publicized intervention in Somalia under President Bill Clinton. (Missing no opportunity to turn tragedy into dollars, Hollywood told the tale — sort of — in “Black Hawk Down.”) While this episode in American military history was extremely brief, its impact still reverberates. And it is one of at least three reasons why there will be no U.S. troops in Haiti any time soon. That nation — which is fewer than 2,000 miles from our shores — is in danger of a total collapse following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.
Very few Americans — of any race — know much about Haiti. Even fewer care. This is despite its historic distinction as the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to be governed by Black people, declaring its independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804. Sadly, Haiti is less than an afterthought. That brings me to my second point about why the U.S. will not actively intervene there: race.
Consider the billions of dollars that we have committed to Ukraine (which I wholeheartedly support). In contrast to Haiti, Ukraine is a nation with which most white Americans can identify, even if they can’t point it out on a map. Haiti, which is much closer to us geographically, is a galaxy away in the way that matters most: White Americans can “see” themselves in Ukrainians. With Haiti, not so much.
We know from psychological studies that white Americans consciously and subconsciously exhibit more empathy toward people who have white skin. Thus, Haitians seem far more “foreign” than Ukrainians do. The upshot is that there will be no groundswell of support for “doing something” in Haiti, even though it would cost much less to intervene there than it does in Ukraine.
The third reason that the U.S. will not commit troops to Haiti is that we have a long and tortuous history in our dealings with the island nation. (We occupied the country for roughly 20 years.) Of course, this is not solely an American issue. I don’t have the space to get into France’s moral and financial responsibility for the state of Haiti given its colonial role and post-colonial dealings.
In any case, myriad domestic crises have prompted foreign intervention, but those have achieved uneven results at best. For example, the United Nations mustered a peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSTAH, in 2004. Those troops brought a level of stability during armed conflict; they also triggered a disastrous cholera outbreak. (The disease had been eradicated in Haiti for roughly 100 years.)
Further, while the troops were able to quell the violence from native Haitians, they supplanted it with their own. Many engaged in sexual abuse of women and children and other human rights violations. The troops were withdrawn in 2017.
Still, the Biden administration is pushing for a U.N. “rapid action force” to address the deteriorating situation. Even Haitians, who are understandably skeptical of foreign intervention, are calling for foreign military aid. Also, some Biden officials fear that the humanitarian crisis could lead to tens of thousands of Haitians trying to float their way to the U.S. Thousands would die in the process.
Politically, a mass migration of Haitians to America would damage President Biden, who Republicans already accuse of having an “open border” policy. Thus, the president is caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charibdes (aka “a rock and a hard place”). Frankly, I don’t know what the solution for Haiti is. But I do know that a failure to act should not be an option.
Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at email@example.com.