The Perils of Humanitarian Intervention - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Perils of Humanitarian Intervention

The Perils of Humanitarian Intervention

By Pooja Bhatia

Haitians greet a US soldier with cheers at Port-au-Prince's harbor, on September 19, 1994


Maybe we were naive back then, thinking that the big question was whether we had a duty to intervene, instead of whether intervention would do any good. Haiti in 1994 is a case in point. 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton sat behind his desk in the Oval Office and spoke to the nation about the crisis in Haiti. A coup had deposed its first democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, just eight months after he took office. The junta was cruel. It shot up the slums where Aristide’s supporters lived, killed priests and their parishioners and, said Clinton, even massacred orphans. The junta may have been more brutal than the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who’d fled for France in 1986 when Aristide’s democratic flood threatened to drown him. 

Clinton would fix it by sending 20,000 Marines to Haiti in “Operation Uphold Democracy.”

Advisers told him his contemplated military intervention was worse than misguided or foolish — it was insane.

You can hear in his Sept. 15 speech how reluctant Americans were. The year before, the charred bodies of U.S. soldiers were dragged through Mogadishu’s streets and the images broadcast into Americans’ living rooms. Perhaps American inaction in the Rwanda genocide, five months before, was on Clinton’s mind when he said: “I know that the United States cannot, indeed we should not, be the world’s policemen. And I know … Americans are reluctant to commit military resources and our personnel beyond our borders. But when brutality occurs close to our shores, it affects our national interests. And we have a responsibility to act.”

Bill Clinton and Jean-Bertrand Aristide standing on small stage with troops surrounding them in a ceremony

U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide during peacekeeping transfer from U.S. forces to the U.N.

Clinton worried he’d get censured, according to Taylor Branch, the historian who’d known Clinton for years and commended Aristide to Clinton. When Branch visited Clinton on Sept. 14, the president said his advisers told him “his contemplated military intervention was worse than misguided or foolish — it was insane. … [S]ix weeks before the election, Clinton wanted to invade a country that nobody in America cared about.” Clinton seemed pensive. 

But then, according to Branch, “His face brightened, and his mood seemed to lift in advance of his next words. ‘I’m going ahead with the invasion anyway,’ he said, ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’ He said he might lose his presidency, but he had to take that chance.”

The writer Bob Shacochis titled his book about Operation Uphold Democracy The Immaculate Invasion, and it was, as invasions go, clean, short, its limited goals actually accomplished. Surgical, even. The junta was taken out — not killed, but gone. (Junta leaders would be tried, and many convicted in absentia, for their role in an April 1994 massacre.) Aristide was reinstated. Thousands of Haitians gathered in front of the National Palace to welcome him back. Vive l’Invasion!

Well, not quite.

We made this devil’s bargain.

Even Aristide professed ambivalence. “If I were to ask for a military intervention, I would be impeached under my Constitution,” he said a few months earlier. The first American Marine invasion and occupation, from 1915 to 1934, still lives in Haitians’ historical memory, and the sight of American soldiers in Port-au-Prince in 1994 humiliated even the most ardent lovers of democracy.

Many were horrified that the junta leaders got amnesty for the coup— though not surprised, because conventional wisdom was that the CIA had supported it. And the socialists who’d loved Aristide’s liberation theology rhetoric were suspicious. They believed the price for restoring Aristide would be paid in policies like dropping Haiti’s import barriers and opening food markets — the so-called “American Plan.” 

They were right.

“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” Clinton confessed in 2010 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti, to feed those people. Because of what I did.” Later, he described it as “devil’s bargain.” 

So much has happened in Haiti, to Haiti, since Clinton restored Aristide. That powerful democracy movement splintered and now is barely recognizable. Aristide won another term in 2000, though withdrawal of U.S. support led to his ouster in 2004. Then came another Marine invasion, less immaculate than the previous one; an “interim” peacekeeping force that’s been presiding over Haiti since the Marines left (so much for that Constitution); devastating tropical storms; the return of Clinton as the U.N.’s special envoy to Haiti; an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands; the Marines, again; the inadvertent importation of a cholera epidemic by those U.N. soldiers; the return of Duvalier; the return of Aristide; and the election of a right-wing, formerly bawdy singer who is now president. 

100 US troops arrive in this coastal town, 120 km south of Port-au-Prince, as part of the Operation Uphold Democracy.

Haiti in 1994

The immaculate invasion? It’s almost hard to remember.

Note: An earlier version of this article omitted mention of the trial and conviction of junta leaders for their responsibility in the 1994 massacre in Raboteau, a neighborhood in Gonaïves, Haiti. 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

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