Bush and Clinton: A return to helping Haiti

The ex-presidents, who both made fitful efforts to aid the nation during their terms, have teamed up to help Haiti recover from the quake and attempt to put it on a path toward prosperity.

January 20, 2010|By Paul Richter

Reporting from Washington — When Haiti was gripped by crisis in 1994, President Clinton sent troops to restore its exiled president to power, organized a $2.6-billion international rescue program and declared the island a top priority of his administration.

"We should work this way whenever we can," he later wrote in his memoir of the international effort.

Yet, by the end of his term, the Clinton administration's interest in Haiti had waned and its patience had worn out. Clinton ordered a halt to most direct U.S. aid, a step some experts say inflicted lasting damage on the hemisphere's poorest country.

Now Clinton has teamed up with former President George W. Bush on a fundraising program they say is aimed both at helping Haiti recover from the Jan. 12 earthquake and finally putting the battered country on a path to prosperity.

The effort also could help make up for the failings of policies over 16 years that have been fitful and, even by sympathetic assessments, netted only modest progress.

Clinton's efforts began in a blaze of ambition but faded because of the shortcomings of the authoritarian Haitian government, disputes between the White House and a Republican Congress, and the urgency of other international crises.

Bush also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Haiti. Yet Bush, too, had a contentious relationship with the Haitian government for much of his term and carefully limited U.S. commitment to the island at a time when his administration was struggling to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, said the former presidents' campaign is admirable but also somewhat ironic because of the way U.S. interest in Haiti flagged during both their presidencies.

The new joint effort, while commendable, can "be read in some sense as an act of atonement by both leaders," said Daniel Erikson, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank specializing in the Western Hemisphere.

"I don't think either Clinton or Bush would say, if they were honest, that they were happy with the way things unfolded on Haiti during their terms in office," Erikson said.

Bush, who has been largely out of the public eye since he left office, also may be hoping the Haiti project will help overcome criticism he got for his administration's response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

For Clinton, Haiti was always a special case. He had been fascinated by the country since his first visit, 35 years ago, when he learned about voodoo and witnessed a ceremony in which a Haitian woman bit off the head of a live chicken.

Haiti "transcended being a policy priority -- it was a cause celebre for the [Clinton] administration," Rothkopf said.

But President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom Clinton restored as president with the intervention of 20,000 U.S. troops in 1994, resisted U.S. pressure to make Haiti more democratic and to reform its withering economy. U.S. hopes of finally building strong democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary and police, went nowhere.

Haitian policy was caught in a crossfire in Congress, where Republicans denounced the Aristide government as thuggish while many Democrats voiced admiration.

By the end of the decade, interest in Haiti was muted. "It wasn't entirely forgotten, but clearly the administration turned to other priorities, primarily the Balkans," said James Dobbins, who was the Clinton administration's special envoy to Haiti and is now at the Rand Corp.

In 2000, after fraud-tainted parliamentary elections, the United States and some allied donors froze most official aid to the country. U.S. officials said it wouldn't be restored without fair elections and more effort against the nation's drug trade.

The Bush administration, taking office the next year, continued the aid restrictions. By 2004, Haiti was in a fragile state, rebellion broke out, and Aristide was forced from power. The Bush administration sent U.S. Marines to Haiti in February 2004 as Aristide fled the country, a move some Democrats complained made the United States complicit in a coup.

But Bush, who had criticized the Clinton administration for using the military for "nation-building," withdrew the U.S. troops within three months, handing the security mission to the United Nations.

The permanent government that took over in 2006, headed by the current president, Rene Preval, was acceptable to the United States and other countries, and the flow of direct aid resumed.

Robert A. Pastor, who was a Clinton administration advisor on Haiti, said he fears that the current U.S. interest in Haiti follows an unfortunate pattern.

"There's a crisis, there's a strong reaction, and then promises to remain engaged. And then there's disillusionment, and interest wanders," said Pastor, now at American University. "This applied to the way the past two administrations reacted to Haiti. I'm afraid it will apply to this one too."

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