Originally: Haiti has suffered the results of U.S domestic political manipulation.

March 19, 2004 (The Washington Post)

The chaos in Haiti that drove Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office and his continued assertion that it was Washington who removed him make it easy to forget that just 10 years ago, he and Haiti were heralded as a U.S. foreign policy success. What happened between 1994, when his presidency was restored, and now has been widely attributed to U.S. neglect. But those who stayed engaged should also share blame for Haiti?s failure.

As Washington attempts to assert its influence anew in a country where it has sent troops twice in a decade, the risks of letting U.S. policy in Haiti fall into the hands of those least interested in a bipartisan approach should be clear. As veteran diplomat James Dobbins said in an interview, “if we are going to promote reconciliation in Haiti we need to promote it at home.”

Haiti has suffered the results of U.S domestic political manipulation. When the U.S. Marines ensured Aristide?s peaceful return to Port-au-Prince in the October 1994 “Operation Restore Democracy,?? the Clinton administration promised to help build a working democracy. The administration also promised the U.S. public that there would be no nation building and pledged a quick exit from Haiti.

Keeping the latter promise without breaking the former was impossible. The self-imposed deadline proved to be less a sign of commitment and more a proof of the neglect that was to come. The vacuum was filled rapidly in Washington by forces driven by partisanship and their attitude about one man: Aristide.

In March 1995, Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit the island in more than 60 years. Eager to bask in the victory of a peaceful U.S. military intervention, he called Aristide?s return to power the “triumph of freedom over fear.” But to a few Republicans in Congress who were paying attention, led by Jesse Helms, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was time to prove Clinton wrong.

Selectively focusing on the murder of Mireille Durocher de Bertin, a former spokeswoman for the military dictatorship, that occurred days before Clinton?s visit, the Republicans in Congress drafted an amendment to the foreign aid bill that eventually bottled up millions of dollars of U.S. economic assistance targeted for the Aristide government. That amendment, named for 1996 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, demanded “thorough” investigations of Bertin?s murder and the killings of other opponents of Aristide.

It was clearly a questionable condition, considering the fact that Haiti?s new police force was barely in place and scrambling to keep order on an island whose military had just been disbanded. Moreover, the Republicans did not seek to investigate political violence that might embarrass Aristide?s more violent predecessors.

While hamstringing Clinton?s ability to help Aristide, Republicans were demanding that he fund the programs of the International Republican Institute, the GOP?s international branch to promote democracy around the world. Their program in Haiti has been amply criticized as slanted in favor of Aristide?s opponents.

But if Republicans were focused on Aristide as a barrier to democracy on the island, those few Democrats who cared — mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus — saw Aristide as its pillar. And their views continued for years despite mounting evidence that Aristide had turned to the tactics of his undemocratic predecessors.

In their allegiance to Aristide, they ignored the Haitian leader?s growing reliance on extralegal security forces, otherwise known as thugs, to ensure his power. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, who organized Aristide?s return to the Caribbean this week, is one of Aristide?s best-known apologists.

Haiti-funded lobbyists did not aid the already imbalanced tone in Washington. These firms gladly took millions in fees from the poorest nation in the hemisphere by only “preaching to the choir” of Aristide supporters, said Haiti scholar Robert Maguire, director of the Haiti Program at Trinity College in Washington.

At any particular time one can find strident and extreme voices in this city, but in the absence of a middle ground, those concerned with Haiti did little to help the fragile nation. As Dobbins put it, most diplomatically, “against the background of the last decade, it is fair to say that neither (of) the distinctly different Democratic and Republican approaches to Haiti have yielded great results.” Indeed, with friends like these, Haiti?s government didn?t need a U.S. conspiracy to bring it down, despite Aristide?s allegations to the contrary.

Fortunately, some of those who stayed involved with Haiti are no longer in a position of power. But that doesn?t mean others won?t take up the helm and, in the absence of a long-term strategy, contribute to Haiti?s sad history.

Marcela Sanchez