THE NEW secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, has pledged to bring up the subject of Haiti at the OAS general assembly beginning tomorrow in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. If so, it won't be a moment too soon. Fifteen months after U.S. forces escorted a besieged President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile, Haiti once again is on the brink of chaos. An international peacekeeping mission mandated by the United Nations has been a failure; the interim government has not managed to create the conditions that would allow for promised elections in October. Another rescue is needed, one that would benefit from OAS diplomacy but must be founded on the restoration of order. That probably can't happen without American troops.
At the moment, any international diplomat who sought to save the political situation would first have to save himself from the armed gangs that openly roam much of the capital, Port-au-Prince. One group of carjackers killed a French diplomat last week. Both France and the United States have recently warned their citizens to stay out of the country, and the U.S. Embassy evacuated non-emergency personnel last month. Haitians have nowhere to run, and more than 700 have been killed since last September: some by gangs that support Mr. Aristide; some by their enemies in the former Haitian army; some by the Haitian national police force that nominally operates under the control of the interim government; and some by drug traffickers and other common criminals.
A year ago the United Nations mandated a 7,400-member international force led by Brazil to provide security and disarm the gangs. It hasn't come close to accomplishing its mission. A hodgepodge of Latin American troops supplemented by soldiers from Jordan, Nepal, Croatia and other unlikely friends of Haiti, it lacks the cohesion, professionalism or stomach for taking on the militants. "I insist the problem in Haiti is more social and economical than military," Brazilian commander Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira claimed recently. That has been Brazil's consistent excuse for its commanders' military failing.
Haiti's ills are surely legion -- endemic poverty and malnutrition, an absence of resources, and a deep divide between a tiny economic elite and a desperate majority. A paralyzing conflict between Mr. Aristide's mostly poor supporters and politicians representing the middle and upper classes has survived his removal; the interim government has imprisoned senior officials of the former regime without due process, and Mr. Aristide's party is threatening a boycott of the scheduled elections. Aggressive outside intervention is needed to address these problems, by jump-starting long-promised reconstruction projects and brokering a political accord that would make elections meaningful.
None of that can happen, however, while thugs with automatic weapons roam Haiti's streets. Many Haitians and international observers in Port-au-Prince believe a small but focused and determined force -- say, a few hundred U.S. Marines -- could put a stop to such anarchy. The U.S. embassy in Haiti has recommended that the administration consider dispatching such a force, which could work in tandem with the U.N. mission. This has prompted understandable questions from an overtaxed Pentagon: What is the mission? When would it end? As it struggles with too few troops to restore security in Iraq, the U.S. military cannot easily afford another difficult and open-ended assignment.
Haiti, however, is not Iraq; it is a small country 600 miles from Florida that has been dependent on the United States for its security for more than a century. The idea that it could be stabilized without American help was optimistic a year ago; by now the fallacy is obvious. If Haiti is to be secured or is to hold a democratic election, it will need the help of at least a few hundred American fighters. The sooner they go, the easier their task will be.