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U.S. Ponders Its Role at Start of a New Era

Lawmakers consider investing in the poor neighbor's future in hopes of preventing further chaos and waves of boat people.

March 01, 2004|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After helping oust a president it once supported, the Bush administration now confronts the question of whether to take a larger and long-lasting role in Haiti in hopes of ending the cycle of political collapse that has again brought the U.S. Marines to its shores.

President Bush has long vowed to avoid such nation-building. Any U.S. effort would be burdensome now, when U.S. troops, aid money and attention are focused on Iraq. Yet the United States has already shouldered a significant role in trying to bring about a new political order in the country and is committed to lead an international peacekeeping contingent that would seek to safeguard the emergence of a new leadership.

Even some Republicans wary of foreign aid are asking whether it would be wiser to accept greater involvement in Haiti's long-term development rather than risk further eruptions of chaos and waves of emigration. Every new crisis underscores for the United States the implications of having a failed state and center of misery on its doorstep.

"You're going to have the burden, no matter how you slice it," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). "I don't think anybody's going to walk away from this."

The Bush administration has agreed to send in hundreds of troops, who may remain for weeks. The administration is also likely to send hundreds of peacekeepers to help train and support new police organizations in the country.

Whether to expand the role further is likely to be hotly debated in the weeks and months ahead -- perhaps soon in Congress -- as lawmakers consider restoring some aid to Haiti that they started cutting three years ago to show U.S. displeasure with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The crisis that began Feb. 5 has already brought wide criticism of the way the Clinton administration scaled back its commitment to Haiti after invading in 1994 to restore Aristide after he was ousted by a military coup.

The Clinton administration poured in hundreds of millions of dollars in each of the first years after the invasion. But sensing a lack of political support for the mission, Clinton withdrew the forces by 1996, and left the job of stabilization to a United Nations force, which departed in 2000.

Critics have contended that the withdrawal undermined the effort to strengthen Haiti's feeble government institutions. Aid, which has been cut back steadily to show U.S. displeasure -- over election irregularities, Aristide's support for violent gangs and police repression -- will be $55 million this year.

Advocates of an increased commitment say $200 million to $300 million in annual U.S. aid is necessary. James Dobbins, a special envoy to Haiti in the Clinton years, said in a recent interview that such an investment would probably be needed for a generation to put Haiti solidly on the right track.

By comparison, Israel and Egypt each receive several billion a year in U.S. aid.

Foley said Haiti needed close attention from U.S. and international aid and technical organizations, such as the Peace Corps, CARE, the U.S. Agriculture Department and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to make sure the aid produces results.

Some congressional conservatives who have opposed Haiti aid will probably resist investing large new sums, citing the budget deficit and the money wasted in the country in the past.

But Richard Haass, former director of policy planning in the Bush State Department, said that by its effort in recent weeks, the United States has already committed itself to doing more.

"The United States is now a part of it," he said on ABC's "This Week" television show. "Haiti is a reminder that failing states and weak states can be as much of a problem ... as strong states. It could become a power vacuum where drug agents or terrorists could set up shop," and refugees could "destabilize the Caribbean."

"I think the issue now is for the United States, working with other countries in the region, working with the United Nations, to essentially make sure this doesn't happen again."

William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and editor of the Weekly Standard, predicted that Bush would have little choice but to accept deeper commitment to Haiti.

"We will have to go on to prevent, simply, replacement of one thug by another group of thugs, to prevent civil war," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "There will be another exercise in nation-building, which the president ran against in 2000, but now he's going to end up having to do."

A senior diplomat closely involved in the recent crisis, and who has worked on Haiti's problems for years, said he believed the United States and other countries would be drawn into a prolonged effort.

Since the last U.S. occupation, "Haiti has just gone from one crisis to another," said the diplomat, who asked to remain unidentified. He said other countries would want a system of accountability from Haiti before getting involved because they have "spent billions there since 1994, and when they look at Haiti today, they can't tell where all the money went."

Daniel P. Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said the depth of the American commitment could depend on whether the United States is able to find Haitians it trusts as partners.

If it fails to find such partners, and the effort is "a long, murky mess," the U.S. officials may try to limit their involvement. But the effort could grow if it finds leaders in whom it has confidence.

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