aiti’s long smoldering political crisis has exploded into insurrection, with armed gangs driving the police out of the country’s fourth-largest city, Gonaïves, and at least 10 other towns. Some are now back in government hands, but more than 40 people have been killed so far, and the violence is far from over. Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, helped bring this crisis on himself, with his encouragement of mob violence, politicization of the national police and failure to ensure fair legislative elections. Yet many of the insurrectionists are former Aristide allies with even weaker democratic credentials.

Whoever ultimately prevails in this conflict, democracy and the Haitian people are likely to be the big losers if it unfolds along its present violent trajectory. Spreading unrest could send tens of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, including the United States.

If this story is to have a happier ending, those nations must act now, with Washington in the lead. The 14 other countries of the Caribbean Community have commendably tried to mediate. But they lack the authority and influence needed to lead Haiti back from the brink. America alone has that kind of prestige. It must take constructive action, not just drop hints that Mr. Aristide should resign. Nearly a decade ago, the Clinton administration’s dispatch of American troops helped persuade a murderous Haitian military junta to step down, paving the way for Mr. Aristide to complete his first presidential term, which had been interrupted by a coup. Unfortunately, Washington’s involvement wound down before the kinds of steps that would have deepened the roots of Haitian democracy ? like creating a professional police force and independent electoral institutions ? were completed. That kind of unglamorous institution-building would most likely have prevented the current insurrection and much of the political crisis that preceded it.

Mr. Aristide’s survival in office for the nearly two years remaining in his presidential term may depend on his willingness to accept an American-led police retraining effort and international supervision of the next parliamentary and presidential elections. Washington should now be offering that kind of assistance and urging Mr. Aristide to accept it