Originally: Lessons from a failed state

WASHINGTON, Apr 28, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) — If the 1994 American intervention in Haiti is any guide, the current U.S. goal to establish democracy in Iraq is an unrealistic one.

Less than a decade after the United States proudly proclaimed the restoration of democracy in Haiti, the troubled Caribbean country is by most assessments a failed state. The Haitian government refuses to yield to the calls of the international community to hold free and fair elections. Violence and crime have risen dramatically, and the country has become a haven for drug traffickers and international criminals who benefit from its porous borders and absence of rule of law.

Haiti is no better off than it was before the U.S.-led U.N. coalition intervened.

What can we learn from Haiti in order not to make the same mistakes in Iraq? The first lesson is to stick around. The Haiti intervention in 1994 occurred right after our ill-fated foray into Somalia, where the photos of the body of a U.S. Marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu caused a public outcry. The Clinton administration responded by ending the mission, despite its successes against the ruling warlords.

This public aversion to casualties dominated the events in Haiti: we were determined not to risk one American life, and to get out as quickly as possible. In doing so, we left a country ill-prepared to handle the civic responsibilities of democracy and the accompanying rule of law.

As Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned on Iraq, ” … if we have an accelerated withdrawal schedule, the chances of Iraq holding together are low and the chances of it being seized by extremist elements or civil war are high.”

The second lesson is to talk to people on the ground. This may sound obvious, but the U.S. government has a tendency to expend its energies communicating with its own staff and the public, to the exclusion of the local populace and its leaders.

The biggest problem in Haiti was and is lack of communication among the many different actors, which has resulted in redundancy and missed opportunities on the part of the United States and others.

The political pressure to produce results quickly meant that civilians were not consulted in developing the Haitian police force, which has proved to be entirely ineffective and corrupt. The United States and its allies also overlooked Haitian institutional capacity to accommodate certain reforms, and many changes were enacted that were driven by the international institutions, without the support or input of Haitians. Since diplomatic ties with Iraq were broken off in 1990, the challenge for the United States is to find reliable Iraqis with whom to work.

The third lesson is to manage expectations. Democracy is not instant or easy, nor is it necessarily the best solution for every society. A populace that is accustomed to torture and repression cannot be expected to suddenly exercise its right of self-expression. A strong educational and informational component must accompany the activities of the U.S.-led provisional administration and interim Iraqi government.

Iraq and Haiti obviously are very different countries with different education levels, ethnic composition, and histories. But neither has had experience with democracy before the United States decided to implant it, and both have a colonial history. Both have suffered from crippling sanctions and widespread poverty. Iraq has the advantage of oil resources. Both had corrupt governments who stole from the people and left a legacy of distrust and fear of those in power.

Since we have taken on the mission of liberating and reshaping Iraq, we cannot be deterred by the voices of Iraqis who tell us to go away. We can, however, listen to those voices and give them a stake in the future of their country.

We can provide the infrastructure to empower Iraqis to lead. We can show how a system of justice can work and treat all parties fairly. We can take the responsibility of the stewardship of Iraq’s oil resources seriously.

Domestic political exigencies should not determine our actions in Iraq. As Holbrooke noted, “The American public and the Congress need to face up to a long-term commitment which won’t be cheap, and we have to be prepared to pay the bill, which will be very large, even with Iraqi oil to cover part of it.”

The temptation in our information-glutted society is to demand fast results and focus on near-term gains. We must overcome this and invest in Iraq for the long term. A failure to do this will result in a further destabilized Middle East region, more precarious relations between the United States and its allies, and another failed state in the U.S. legacy.

(Katherine Shafer is a student at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, and worked in Haiti for Hands Together, a charitable group that works exclusively in Haiti.)