The United States moves to topple the isolated president of a disordered nation but fails to plan adequately for the violent aftermath, even though it was widely anticipated. U.S. and other military forces are too few and ill prepared to maintain order.
Haiti is not Iraq. It is smaller, its problems are more quantifiable and it is not sundered by religious and ethnic divisions. The swearing-in Monday of Interim President Boniface Alexandre, the Supreme Court's chief justice, was at least a stopgap step toward establishing stability.
Another difference between Haiti and Iraq is that the U.S. did not directly overthrow its leader, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, although France and the United States issued a clear message to Aristide to leave. Unfortunately, his departure has not brought Haitians much comfort.
The United States has about 1,700 Marines in Haiti patrolling Port-au-Prince, the capital, along with the Haitian national police. France, Brazil, Canada and others are sending hundreds of troops. But the armed followers of rebel leader Guy Philippe and the thugs who were Aristide's enforcers still roam the streets with virtual impunity.
Even in the capital, U.S. forces were unable to prevent gunmen presumed loyal to Aristide from mortally wounding seven people Sunday during a march celebrating Aristide's removal.
If the U.S. and others can stem Haiti's anarchic slide, then a United Nations peacekeeping force will have a chance of success. But the U.S. and its allies can't expect the U.N. to solve the mess from the bottom up, in either the military or civilian realms.
As Jan Egeland, the top U.N official for emergency relief, said Friday, a shortfall in aid helped lead to Haiti's collapse, and help is now desperately needed. The U.N. plans to make a new plea for emergency assistance today, and Britain is delivering 30,000 tons of medical supplies.
President Bush should consult with the Caribbean countries under the banner of Caricom to draw up a longer-term plan of civil aid that can help Haiti emerge from squalor and desperation. Caricom has been wary of Washington's intentions since Aristide's departure and will need persuading.
Haiti lacks everything: an honest police force, decent schools, sufficient food and viable political parties that don't rely on thugs and corruption to enforce their will. The National Endowment for Democracy, whose activities Bush is planning to expand in the Middle East, could play a support role in setting up parties and elections.
Haiti has long provoked spasms of international alarm followed by years of neglect. The blind eye of Haiti's hemispheric neighbors made the current catastrophe worse than it needed to be.
U.S. armed forces are already overextended in Iraq. The question is whether nations that see the United States as an international lone wolf will freely offer the sustained assistance that Haiti requires.