Monday, January 18, 2010

Longer-term engagement in Haiti: Beware the Insta-Pundits

Revealing just how much our foreign policy discourse has changed over the last decade, the discussion of humanitarian relief for Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake has quickly turned to considering what if any form longer-term US engagement should take. This is a good thing, but a serious danger lurks as the denizens of security think tanks and policy shops try to quickly develop some expertise on a situation they have, for the most part, ignored. Although there are a handful of Haiti-hands scattered through-out the administration and the foreign-policy firmament, I worry that too many will succumb to the urge to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with what passes for 'received wisdom.'

What do I mean? Check out this briefing from the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Not my favorite institution at the best of times, but to get this much wrong in only two and half pages is, well, remarkable. Aristide was removed in 2004, not 2006. Comparing Haiti today to Somalia in 1993 is absurd - I don't think I even have to explain why. And in claiming that the UN peacekeeping mission (aka MINUSTAH) has "been struggling to counter the activities of gangs and other armed groups—the primary power‐brokers in the embattled nation," AEI manages to simultaneously be several years out of date on the security situation, and unfairly dismissive of the UN's successes. I'm picking on AEI because Small Wars Journal linked to the article, but I suspect there are other examples out there.

Between 2005 and 2007, MINUSTAH broke the back of the gangs through intelligence-led joint military-police operations. Following a 'clear-hold-build' pattern, they expanded security bubbles into previously gang-controlled neighborhoods by targeting gang leaders for arrest, stepping up patrols, establishing new police stations and checkpoints, and introducing employment and essential services projects on the heels of security operations. While progress has been slow, the mission has also made important headway on reforming the Haitian National Police. This is not to gloss over the serious problems that persist (and there are plenty), but Haiti in 2010 is not Haiti in 2004, or 1994 for that matter.

Point is, if we want to help prevent Haiti from backsliding, we have to recognize what has changed over the last 6 years. MINUSTAH has had a hard time responding to the earthquake because it has effectively been decapitated by the collapse of its HQ and the death of a significant chunk of its senior staff. It's apparently hamstrung response is not reflective of its role over the last few years, or its potential going forward. Likewise, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Canada and CARICOM have all been seriously engaged in Haiti, and should be viewed as partners for the development of a regional strategy. While greater US engagement could be critical for re-energizing international efforts, in most cases it would be counter-productive to shoulder them aside.

Bottom line: beware the proliferation of insta-pundits peddling stale-dated information, anecdotes rather than careful assessments, and received wisdom that sounds a little too familiar. We get more than enough of all that on Afghanistan.


  1. General musing question for which I have no answer: if you are a reporter, or someone interested in disseminating information, where exactly do you turn in such instances? Dramatic, sudden, catastrophic? Isn't this a bit like complaining about a sort of intellectual logistics jam: it's often a lot harder to do a thing well than outsiders understand.

    Hmm...what is my point. Oh yeah: I sort of like the steady, reasonable, link a variety of sources methodology of Small Wars Journal. I think, for a layperson like me, it's quite useful. I know, I know, not the point of the post, I was just thinking, meanderingly, outloud.

    Our hospital is going to have a meeting this evening to discuss our hospital missions in Haiti. Will keep you all informed, if pertinent.

  2. Okay, quickly read the article. It's obviously a rough thing, but I don't think it is as bad as you say. The first sentence - minus the Somalia reference - doesn't seem that bad. It will embroil us, even more, in local politics and already the general MSM has reports about this or that official upset with the United States for "taking charge" of the airport. Initial reports with no real basis - in such an event, how could there not be misunderstanding?

    Comment exit question: is it better to have just one country like the US, or someone else, take charge or will high profile instances of wanting to help end up in some competition between countries that actually hurts, not helps, the effort? As usual, I ask questions and have so few answers... .

  3. Jan Egeland on my local television, talking about contigency plans, how thay exist in most of the neighbouring states (he points to Cuba as the best!) and wonders aloud why Haiti has been left behind. The wwhole Aristide debacle during Clinton was weird from a leftist perspective. We just didnt understand why the US backed off and became like that. Why?

    Small nationalistic comment: All the good logistic norwegians have been kicked out of the UN relief effort because they have been loudly pissed about Gaza, unfortunately. So good luck.