Originally: A clear objective in nation-building

President Bush?s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, declared in talking about U.S. policy in Iraq : “When Americans begin a noble cause, we finish it.” Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright echoed Rice?s words in Foreign Affairs magazine, writing that Democrats “believe in finishing the jobs we start.”

The experience in nearby Haiti refutes both of their claims.

It has been nine years since President Bill Clinton ordered U.S. soldiers into Haiti to replace a military junta with elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide. During that span, Haiti and its 8 million people have fallen deeper and deeper into misery. Its economy is stagnant and its political institutions are broken.

The Bush administration?s top Latin American official, Roger Noriega, blames Haiti?s plight on its leadership. He is mostly right. The government of Haiti — led by Aristide in 1994 and 1995, then by his handpicked successor, Rene Preval, and again by Aristide since 2001 — has been the biggest culprit in the country?s unrelenting deterioration. Indeed, the withdrawal of most foreign support was provoked by the Haitian government?s failure to uphold the rule of law or conduct fair elections.

Still, no one can argue seriously that the United States came even close to completing the job it undertook in Haiti. A recent Rand Corp. study concluded that the Clinton administration and Congress never put in the resources required and pulled the plug too early. the United States essentially gave up on Haiti after only a few years of “nation building” — it pulled out its peacekeeping troops, stopped collaborating with the country?s embryonic police force and pared financial aid way back.

Just like Iraq and Afghanistan, Haiti desperately needs an engaged United States to stem its slide toward becoming a failed state. Its rates of illiteracy, malnutrition and disease put it at the same level as sub-Saharan Africa?s drought- and war-ravaged nations. As food shortages and unemployment worsen, a refugee emergency for Florida and many Caribbean countries may be in the making.

A several-fold expansion of international aid will be required to make even modest progress in controlling widespread hunger and malnutrition, providing basic sanitation services, preventing the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, combating illiteracy and reducing joblessness. There are good reasons for cutting off aid to the Aristide government, including its manipulation of election results, intimidation of opposition leaders and endemic corruption. But the extreme destitution of ordinary Haitians makes withholding support a callous instrument for promoting political change.

This argument is beginning to take hold in some quarters. With the encouragement of the Bush administration, the Inter-American Development Bank is once again lending to Haiti, and the World Bank may soon follow suit. True, safeguards are required to ensure that aid money will not be misused, wasted or stolen by inept and corrupt officials, but that set of problems is not unique to Haiti. Aid organizations face such concerns in virtually all of the world?s poorest countries. Perhaps more important than aid, the Haitian Economic Recovery and Opportunity Act is awaiting congressional approval. This would extend trade preferences to Haiti?s apparel industry — helping to propel job growth and economic expansion.

Right now, Haiti?s most vital political task is to hold clean and credible elections. Its constitution calls for legislative elections by the end of this year and a presidential race in November 2005 — a little more than two years away. If the presidential election is conducted lawfully, Haiti will have a new leader in 2006, since Aristide, having served two terms, is constitutionally barred from ever running again. Sure, his party could win and he will almost certainly retain some political clout, but once he is out of office, his hammerlock on Haitian politics would end.

The political process in Haiti has been stalled since 2000, when the government rigged the results of legislative elections, and opposition candidates (and most Haitians boycotted the presidential vote later that year. Absent a solution to Haiti?s bitter political deadlock, the country will remain ungovernable and impoverished.

For the past several years, Washington, rent by partisan divisions and unable to come up with a coherent policy approach of its own, has turned for help to the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS has worked diligently and creatively to find a way out of Haiti?s political crisis. But it cannot succeed unless it has the full, unambiguous backing of a U.S. government that speaks with a single voice.

But Haiti is also an important test of whether the governments of the hemisphere are truly committed to protecting and advancing democratic rule — an objective to which they all pledged when they signed the so-called Inter-American Democratic Charter on Sept. 11, 2001. Haiti is not just Washington?s problem; every nation in the Western Hemisphere is tarnished by Haiti?s deepening distress.

Nothing can ever be guaranteed in Haitian politics, but it should surely be possible to hold an honest election in Haiti — one in which the government cannot manipulate the vote, where opposition candidates can compete on a level field, and whose results are widely accepted as legitimate. The OAS and the United Nations know how to manage elections in difficult situations, and they will know what to do in Haiti. But, to make the elections work, efforts have to begin almost immediately — two years is just not all that much time to prepare.

One prerequisite is enhanced security so candidates can campaign without fear of intimidation, and journalists, election officials and private monitors can do their jobs safely. No one in the opposition trusts the Haitian government to provide the needed security — indeed, the government is viewed as a dangerous source of bullying and intimidation. But even if the government truly wanted to ensure a secure election, it doesn?t have the resources or personnel. The Haitian National Police force is understaffed, badly trained and riddled with corruption. The United States and other nations will have to provide and equip a security force, perhaps of 1,000 persons or so. Credible elections will also require a substantial team of foreign observers, technical assistance for the electoral authorities and a reliable mechanism for settling disputes. Estimates put the cost of all this at upward of $50 million.

Ideally, the international community would help get the congressional vote on track. But whatever happens in the coming year should not obscure the main priorities — dealing with Haiti?s humanitarian crisis and working toward an honest, fair and democratic presidential election in 2005, in accord with the constitutional timetable. That is what is most crucial for Haiti?s future. Regarding Iraq, President Bush has said he wants to finish the job America started. The people in Haiti deserve no less.

Peter Hakim and Dan Erikson