It was June 1995, and I was standing beside a nervous Jordanian police officer in the doorway of a dusty, sweltering office as a gang of drunken Haitian thugs moved slowly up the porch stairs toward us, angry and menacing. The young Jordanian and I had been sent to the town of Corail, on Haiti’s southwest coast, by the United Nations as observers for ongoing parliamentary elections. Haiti had been on edge in the eight months since 20,000 American troops deposed the military regime of Raoul Cedras and returned President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from exile the year before.

All that day we had been overseeing a sub-regional clearing house where ballots (some of which were brought in from rural polling stations by donkey) were to be boxed, officially sealed and shipped elsewhere for final tabulation. But as we packed up dozens of overflowing ballot boxes, the gang of local men had slowly formed outside, drinking moonshine, dancing and chanting anti-Aristide slogans. Worried that they might attack the office, I radioed the United States Special Forces team deployed in our sector.

This was a squad of only 11 American soldiers, but their hilltop headquarters in a modest Haitian home projected power and security throughout Grand Anse province. So did their Humvees, Zodiac watercraft, M-16’s ? and their stunningly intimidating discipline. While larger, lumbering regular Army units were also valuable, in my experience it was these 1,100 Special Forces troops, deployed in 27 Haitian towns and cities, that played the major role in maintaining order and suppressing paramilitary groups’ efforts to derail democracy.

In my experience, most of Haiti’s paramilitary thugs had a coward’s courage: armed with baseball bats, amulets, bellies full of cane liquor and the occasional pistol, a small group could terrorize an unarmed village ? or an election office. But if just a couple of helmeted Americans appeared in full Kevlar, fingers poised on the trigger guards of their M-16’s, the thugs would invariably smile, nod and melt away. It was an inspiring drama, and it played out daily across the region.

Unfortunately, it was not going to occur on the steps of that building in Corail. The voice on the other end of the radio had told me that all members of the Special Forces unit were confronting similar crises at other polling sites, and would not be able to help for several hours ? could I hold out that long?

So the Jordanian police officer and I did the only thing we could: we stood side-by-side at the front door, feigning determination to protect it at all costs. Soon enough, the crowd, about 50 strong, approached us and ascended the porch stairs. Then came a slow, relentless surge forward. The officer and I looked at each other and at the antiquated six-shooter pistol he carried at his hip, shrugged, and stepped aside.

The gang members shouted with glee, rushed into the building, threw all the ballot boxes and wooden furniture through the windows and then rushed back out to make a bonfire. There was nothing to do but stand and watch ? there was no effective Haitian police force or any other civic body to turn to. The men danced and sang and drank cane liquor and poured it on the fire, while the region’s uncounted ballots turned to a pile of smoldering ash.

A decade later, similar gangs have plunged the entire country into anarchy. Fortunately, if belatedly, United States Marines are arriving on Haitian soil. But as the details of their mission are being planned, it is essential that we remind ourselves of one big lesson of 1995: a small but potent American military force can be remarkably effective. It would be overly cautious to limit the Marines to an unambitious stabilization exercise in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Relatively few of them could restore order to all major population centers. There are likely just a few hundred Haitian rebels with serious arms; they are poorly equipped and undisciplined. They are no match and have no stomach for confrontation with even a small contingent of Marines. We can calm Haiti quickly and relatively easily.

Indeed, there are good models for just such a low risk, high-impact humanitarian intervention. In Sierra Leone in 2000, about 1,000 British paratroopers quickly pacified one of the world’s most lethal civil wars ? a goal that large deployments of United Nations forces had failed to achieve for years. Likewise, in Liberia, where tens of thousands of international and West African troops had long failed to stop bloodshed, the mere appearance of ships carrying Marines last year, and a landing party of only 20, played a major role in convincing President Charles Taylor to flee to Nigeria.

If making peace in Haiti will be relatively easy, forging democracy there will be anything but. America has to be realistic about how it measures democratic progress. My experience of the 1995 election was characteristic of a decade of larger failures. Battles between populist pro-Aristide forces and armed thugs representing elite interests have been a recurring theme ever since Mr. Aristide won Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990. This dynamic will not change simply because Mr. Aristide is gone.

In Haiti, or anywhere else for that matter, we cannot promote elections alone as the key to a democratic transition. Creating a democracy requires a sustained commitment of time and money to develop all the necessary elements: a transparent executive branch, a competent legislature, a neutral judiciary and a free press. Elections are necessary but not sufficient. To assume that a popular vote will bring about a democratic metamorphosis would be to condemn Haiti to a repeat of the cycle seen so often in recent years: a short-lived period of freedom, a descent into chaos, and then an American intervention to pick up the pieces.

Unfortunately, Washington is rarely willing to make the commitment to true democracy requires. There is a good reason: it’s very hard. Take, for example, the realm of criminal justice. It requires an independent and highly educated bench of judges, fair prosecutors, public defenders, a well-equipped police force and a humane corrections system. Not only does this mean quickly bringing in outside experts and constructing new courts, jails and police stations, but it also requires universities and training academies.

The United States must also show patience with whatever government emerges in Port-au-Prince. It was a mistake in 2002 when Washington, frustrated with Mr. Aristide and the alleged irregularities in the 2000 presidential elections, cut off aid to Haiti and blocked international loans. To be sure, Mr. Aristide was not without fault, but by withholding aid, America ensured that his government would fail to address the peoples’ needs and that he would gradually lose their support. Now we see the end result: democracy in Haiti is in flames once again.

This time around, American policy toward Haiti should include a long-term commitment of time and money to create the underpinnings of democracy. This is not something the United States is incapable of: despite all the missteps in postwar Iraq, the interim constitution approved by Iraqis over the weekend provides for an independent judiciary, press freedoms, free exercise of religion and civilian control of the military. Washington is in for the long haul when it comes to helping that faraway nation enter the democratic world. If only it would show the same sort of dedication to its poorest neighbor.

Kenneth L. Cain, who served as a United Nations human rights officer in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Liberia in the 1990’s, is co-author of a forthcoming book about peacekeeping.