Monday, March 1, 2004; Page A18

THOUGH HE BITTERLY disappointed Haitians who hoped he would bring democracy and development to the hemisphere’s poorest country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the end made the right decision. Rather than make a last stand in his capital, he accepted the offer of an American plane trip to exile and opened the way for a U.S.-led international force to end the anarchy overtaking the country. History will likely judge that Mr. Aristide was mostly responsible for his own downfall: He presided over a corrupt government that regularly used violence against its opponents and eventually provoked a violent uprising. But his flight to exile Sunday was forced by the Bush administration, which refused to support international intervention or commit U.S. forces until after Mr. Aristide capitulated. President Bush’s declaration yesterday that “the Haitian constitution is working” offered scant cover for the reality that his decisions over the past two weeks had led to the departure of an elected president.

Whether the downfall of Mr. Aristide leads to “a new chapter” and “a hopeful future” for Haiti, as Mr. Bush suggested yesterday, will depend in large measure on how the United States conducts its latest intervention in the country. As a first step, U.S. forces, which were to begin arriving last night, must stop the looting and lawlessness in Port-au-Prince and other cities, and they must ensure that the violent gangs roaming the country — both pro and anti-Aristide — are disarmed and disbanded. Leaders of the armed rebel groups include criminals and former paramilitary operatives from the military dictatorship that preceded Mr. Aristide; they must not be allowed to seize a share of power. Instead, the United States and allies in the Organization of American States and in the Caribbean Community should help to establish a transitional government and organize new democratic elections as soon as possible.

There is much to be learned from the last U.S. effort at stabilizing Haiti a decade ago. U.S. forces left too quickly, and they provided too little training and aid to the police they left behind. Not enough was done to help Haitians build democratic institutions. When Mr. Aristide’s party manipulated the results of a congressional election, the United States suspended all further aid to his government, blocked some other development assistance, and delegated the job of finding a political solution to OAS and Caribbean diplomats with little or no leverage.

Without a more concerted effort at nation-building — comparable to that which the United States has supported in the Balkans, or Iraq — the pattern of crisis and foreign intervention in Haiti will not be broken. So far, the administration’s approach offers scant grounds for optimism. As the crisis mounted over the past several months, U.S. officials ignored it until violence had spread across the country. Even when it became clear that foreign intervention would be necessary, the administration tried to hand the problem off to France or Canada. Only over the weekend did Mr. Bush finally accept what should have been obvious from the beginning: that the United States must lead any rescue of Haiti.

Now that the Marines are once again to be in Port-au-Prince, we can only hope that Mr. Bush will make a large enough commitment of U.S. resources to ensure that Haiti’s next president is democratically chosen — and that he has a fair chance at success.