WASHINGTON — Haiti presents us with a strange modern case study. For many, the chaos in that poor land represents a rebellion not against tyranny but against “democracy,” the supposed solution of all human ills.

What are we to make of this?

Haiti, an overpopulated and environmentally ravaged country of 8 million, began to fall some weeks ago into West African-style violence. Meanwhile, a curious debate began here.

Jean Bertrand Aristide, after all, had been elected president twice, and the argument in Washington was that we must save this democratic presidency. Once, in 1994, we had intervened militarily to bring him back. The clever little pop-eyed priest had been tremendously popular with the masses. All true.

But that first argument, put forward by parts of the administration, Democratic candidate John Kerry and the Black Caucus — that “street thugs” should not be allowed to overthrow a “democratically elected president” — did not hold.

And by last week, an American-French deal found foreign troops in Haiti and the deceptive Aristide knocking on the doors of the Central African Republic for asylum.

“You have this real dilemma of how do you defend constitutional democracy when the democratic leader is part of the problem,” wondered Bernard Aronson, former State Department official and a leading analyst of the hemisphere.

He answered that question by making two points to me: 1) An election alone does not create a democracy, although it’s a good beginning; and 2) simply being elected doesn’t give one the right to violate people’s rights.

“It’s complicated,” Aronson said. “At what point does a democratic leader forfeit his right to rule? What Haiti needed was a Nelson Mandela, and what it got was a Robert Mugabe.”

I would take it a little further. We’re way too tied up with the magic word “democracy.” It’s almost like the ancient alchemists who thought they could make gold from common metals: The modern one-note Americans, rife in this administration, who insist that only the mechanism of democracy is important are the modern political alchemists.

Yet, while forms of democracy are surely desirable everywhere — I prefer the less purist phrase “representative government” — the mechanism of electing leaders doesn’t mean much without the cultural, legal, social, economic and psychological stuff of democracy. In fact, the tyrants of Germany, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and many other countries were duly elected; many of the most stable and progressive countries today (Singapore, Oman, Tunisia) have evolving authoritarian or autocratic regimes.

The respected American ambassador to Haiti, James Foley, said this week that there are “tremendous lessons” to be learned from the recent American experiences in Haiti. As American and French troops now attempt to bring relative order to a far-gone country, here are some of those lessons:

  • The Hippocratic Oath suggests: “First, do no harm.” This same maxim can be applied to the development of poor nations.

    The United States, Europe and the United Nations almost casually destroyed the entire warp and woof of civil society with their foolhardy embargo of the island nation between 1991 and 1994. In the name of restoring democracy and an Aristide presidency, the embargo destroyed all the small but thriving industries there (baseballs and textiles), leaving Haiti with no economy at all.

    Then in the name of free-market globalization, we dumped cheaper American rice into their market, destroying their rice agriculture. Finally, when Aristide ran phony parliamentary elections, we froze $500 million in international loans that would have improved roads, education, health care and water supplies.

  • Beware, once again, as in other parts of the world, the ethnic — and in this case, racial — lobbies.

    One of the players that kept Aristide in power — and did not work to ameliorate his strange behavior and use their power to force him to act democratically — was the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whose most prominent members served uncritically as Aristide’s cheerleaders in Washington. There are many stories of payoffs by Aristide, through his lucrative, exile-serving phone company, to prominent Democrats, including former caucus members, some of whom have openly served as lobbyists for him.

  • Be careful of getting too far away from your history. The United States got so wound up in faraway places with no cultural or historical relationship or ties to America in the last few years that it neglected its true responsibilities, which are solidly in the Western Hemisphere — no matter what the grandiose dreams of world empire are here in Washington.

    All in the name of democracy — in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Finally, be intensely aware that the countries that have made it (add Taiwan, South Korea, Slovenia and Botswana to the list mentioned above) are ones who without exception put democratic DEVELOPMENT first and the democratic MECHANISM second.

    This time the spiral downward is so intensified that we have an apocalyptically failed state. Gangs and thugs rule the streets. Legitimacy is a mere wraith of died hopes. Where does one find our vaunted “democracy” in all of this chaos?