There's a special kind of horror that comes from watching a human catastrophe escalate in front of our eyes, knowing that for most of us sending money is the only useful thing we can do. I remember seeing the terror of the Rwandan genocide explode, visible even on U.S. television, while up close and personal I watched the U.S. and French diplomats in the Security Council working openly to prevent the United Nations from acting to stop the genocidaires. And despite all the differences between natural disasters and those caused by human beings, the sense of helplessness is much the same watching the Haiti crisis from the safety of our living rooms.
This time, of course, the U.S. is not trying to prevent humanitarian assistance. President Obama made all the right commitments to the Haitian people, promising emergency assistance AND that we would stand with them into the future. He made clear that it is indeed the role and responsibility of government to respond to humanitarian crises, and that's a good thing (even if he also anointed his predecessors to lead a parallel privatized response).
But the reality is, on the ground, some of the same problems that we've seen so many times before have already emerged, as U.S. military forces take charge, as the United Nations is pushed aside by overbearing U.S. power, as desperate humanitarian needs take a back seat to the Pentagon's priorities. Saturday morning's New York Times quoted Secretary of State Clinton saying, "we are working to back them [the Haitian government] up but not to supplant them." That was good. But then she said she expected the Haitian government to pass an emergency decree including things like the right to impose curfews. "The decree would give the government an enormous amount of authority, which in practice they would delegate to us," Clinton said. So much for "not supplanting them."
Already the U.S. military controls the airport. That means, according to the UN's World Food Program, that of the 200 flights in and out each day, "most of these flights are for the United States military. Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed." The WFP's planes full of food, medicine, and water were unable to land in on Thursday or Friday, because the priority was U.S.-defined security. On Saturday at least two Mexican planeloads of humanitarian supplies were turned away while several more planeloads of U.S. troops landed.
And given that at this time there was not widespread violence threatening to prevent the delivery of aid, this privileging of troops over water, medicine, and food may well have cost Haitian lives.
This militarization of the aid effort was based solely on the expectation, not the reality, of large-scale violence. The U.S. decision to send the Marines first, before doctors or water, was based on the anticipation that there would be violence that would prevent the distribution of supplies. In fact, despite widespread anger and looting, especially of food, incidents of real violence (though widely reported) have been relatively few and isolated. The bottom line must be who is in charge. With the Haitian government devastated, any necessary turn-over of authority should go to the United Nations rather than to the U.S. military. The U.S. should put the Pentagon's massive airlift capacity at the service of Haiti and the United Nations, not the other way around. Militarizing the provision of aid is not going to save the most lives.
Unfortunately, we've seen this all before. In Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN, a book I wrote in 1995, I described the way the UN was shut out of peacekeeping operations in Haiti in 1994. Seems too many lessons are still unlearned.
In the meantime, sending funds is still crucial. One of the organizations that has been working on the ground in Haiti for more than 20 years, Partners in Health, is now doing extraordinary work responding to the emergency. You can reach them for updates of conditions on the ground and to donate funds at www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti.
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