Commentary Magazine


Hypocrisy on Haiti

Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, is worried that America’s “credibility as a world leader” is in jeopardy. Why? Because “Haiti’s military rulers continue to thumb their noses at the United States.” Washington has tried by peaceful means to make them release their illegitimate grip on power, “but nothing has worked—not diplomacy, not tougher sanctions, not a potential naval embargo.”

This search for a negotiated solution has failed, says Senator Kerry, “because there was no believable threat of force” on our part. If the regime in Port au Prince does not relent, “we must be willing to seek international approval to use military force.” This, proclaims the headline of Kerry’s recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (May 16), will “Make Haiti’s Thugs Tremble.”

Kerry challenges “those who supported Presidents Bush and Reagan” when “we intervened in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq” to explain “why the Haitian situation is different.” He argues that “Every individual reason given for those previous interventions is present in the plural in Haiti—to protect innocent lives, to end chaos, to restore order, to root out drug traffickers.”

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Kerry’s list, however, is not complete. One consideration he omits is the danger to American lives. Albeit in small numbers, Americans were in peril in Grenada and Panama; not so in Haiti.

A still bigger omission from Kerry’s list is American security. This was the main reason for the interventions in Grenada and Panama—and for Desert Storm. Grenada was invaded because the Communist dictators who were ruling the island at the time had made it into an outpost for the Soviet Union, with which the United States was locked, defensively, in a mortal struggle called the cold war. Iraq was attacked because Saddam Hussein had committed an act of naked aggression, and threatened to drive for regional hegemony and control over much of the world’s energy sources.

Panama, alone of the three cases invoked by Kerry, bears some similarity to Haiti in that one issue involved was the vindication of the results of a free election. But American security was also at issue in Panama: the cold war was not yet completely over and the Panamanian dictator had allied himself with America’s enemies in the hemisphere. Moreover, he threatened America’s enduring treaty rights in the Panama Canal.

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These omissions—American lives and American security—are answers that supporters of those earlier military actions might give to explain the difference between them and the case of Haiti. But what answer would Kerry himself give? For the question he asks of those supporters applies just as well to him.

Kerry, after all, has been a frequent opponent of U.S. military action. He launched his political career as the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. No sooner had he arrived in the Senate than he made himself a principal opponent of military aid to America’s allies in Central America. And when the Senate debated the use of force against Iraq, Kerry was volubly opposed. He declared: “In my heart and in my gut and in my mind I do not believe in sending people to war unless it is imperative.”

Moreover, whereas Kerry now says that the threat of military action will strengthen our diplomatic hand with Haiti, he rejected the very same argument with respect to Iraq:

The danger of that is that those who vote for the use of force will create a situation where it becomes more, rather than less, likely that the force they hope will not be used will, in fact, be used. They escalate the stakes. They narrow the box further.

Why does this full-feathered dove reach for the sword on Haiti? Is it perhaps precisely because American lives and security are not at stake in Haiti that Kerry is willing to fight there? Is it that in Haiti we could fight with hands unsullied by selfish motive? Michael Lind of the National Interest has called this the politics of “national disinterest”: “The less a policy benefits the nation undertaking it, the nobler the policy and the nation.” Does the fact that the deposed President Aristide—whose restoration to power would be the goal of an invasion of Haiti—is fiercely anti-American make such an invasion all the nobler?

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Yet whatever the answer, the issue may be academic, since there turns out on closer inspection to be less hawkishness in Kerry’s position than meets the eye. For to say, as he does, that we should “seek international approval” for the use of force is not the same thing as saying that we should use force. What if international approval is not forthcoming?

Near the end of his piece, Kerry writes that “In the absence of clear and present danger, the United States should not use force unilaterally.” In other words, any invasion of Haiti must be carried out with a coalition of regional partners. But in spite of private assurances from certain countries in the area, it is doubtful that such partners will be found. So, even where Haiti is concerned, this dove-turned-hawk will in all likelihood find that the conditions are not suitable for the use of force.

Since I believe that it would be unwise for the U.S. to invade Haiti—where, to repeat, neither American lives nor American security interests are at risk, and where, in addition, the deposed, democratically elected president is no democrat himself—the emptiness of Kerry’s advocacy is perhaps to be welcomed. But this is not the case with the general position he takes against unilateral action by the U.S.

For a superpower, the essence of foreign policy is not to act only in the face of “clear and present dangers,” but to prevent such dangers from materializing by timely assertions of power and extensions of aid to others under threat. To forfeit the right to do these things unilaterally—to subsume our judgment to that of international civil servants like Boutros Boutros Ghali—would be an abdication of responsibility for which we and the world will pay dearly (as is likely to happen in the case of Bosnia). But this is a lesson of our success in the cold war that old-time doves like Kerry—most of whom recently voted against unilaterally lifting the arms embargo to Bosnia—still seem unwilling to learn.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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