Now the peacekeepers are gone and Haiti is once again engulfed in chaos. Last week President Jovenel Moïse, who had already overstayed his initial term in office, was assassinated by gunmen who stormed his villa. Haitian authorities now say they were acting on behalf of a Florida-based Haitian physician who hoped to claim the presidency for himself. But who really knows?
No one appears to be in charge of this country of 11 million people. The United States recognizes interim prime minister Claude Joseph as the acting head of state, but that post is also claimed by Ariel Henry, who was due to be appointed prime minister before Moïse died, and by Senate leader Joseph Lambert. Because elections did not take place as scheduled, the upper house of parliament has only 10 of 30 senators, and the lower house is entirely vacant.
Power is exercised by powerful and brutal gangs. Gasoline and food shortages are becoming chronic. Ordinary people in the capital, Port-au-Prince, are either fleeing their homes or staying inside of them, afraid to come out. This is a Hobbesian state of nature — Somalia in the Caribbean — and it could yet lead to another exodus of boat people heading to Florida.
Haiti’s interim government says “We need help” and asks the United States and the United Nations to send troops to stabilize the situation. But President Biden shows no inclination to answer the 911 call from Port-au-Prince. Sorry, Haiti. The world’s policeman is officially off duty. You’re on your own. Good luck. You’ll need it.
America is now going through one of its non-interventionist phases, as it did in the 1930s and 1970s. We long ago lost our zeal for gunboat diplomacy and the Monroe Doctrine. More recently we have lost any enthusiasm for the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine once espoused by liberal interventionists such as U.S. Agency for International Development Director Samantha Power. R2P has gone the way of Blockbuster video. It expired in the disorder that followed the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which was undertaken on R2P grounds.
Even our zeal for spreading democracy is at a low ebb. The name of the 1994 mission to Haiti — Operation Uphold Democracy — now has a quaint, musty ring. After the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have lost our appetite for democracy-building abroad. Biden doesn’t use the slogan “America First,” but he shares former president Donald Trump’s aversion to nation-building and desire to end “forever wars.” With Biden exiting Afghanistan, he is unlikely to send troops to a fresh conflict, even when it’s much closer to home.
We were much more willing to undertake “wars of choice” when we felt much stronger. But the sugar rush of the “unipolar” moment of the 1990s has long faded. China is rising and even Russia is back, and we no longer feel omnipotent. The twin shocks of the pandemic and the storming of the Capitol have only strengthened the sense that we need to get our own house in order before we can set other countries straight.
All of that is perfectly understandable. I’m a chastened hawk myself who now regrets my support for the invasion of Iraq. But the call for help from Haiti’s interim government is a salutary reminder that the demand for U.S. interventions hasn’t gone away simply because we no longer answer the bat signal. The world still needs and wants America for lack of any better alternative.
If the United States doesn’t intervene in Haiti, the best we can hope for is a return of a U.N. peacekeeping force. That is decidedly problematic, given that the last time U.N. peacekeepers were stationed in Haiti, they were accused of sexual assaults and they inadvertently created a cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people. Some U.S. troops have committed atrocities of their own in the past, but they are usually far more capable and disciplined than the ragtag militaries that typically serve under the U.N. flag. Haiti would undoubtedly be better off, at least for a time, if the 82nd Airborne answered its call for help. But that isn’t going to happen.
The world has long criticized American arrogance and overreach — with some justification. Now we’ve internalized those criticisms. Life in a lot of places will become more nasty, brutish and short if we permanently lose the will to act as a liberal hegemon. The world will miss American power when it’s gone. Haiti already does.