A Stark Choice for America

The United States faces unpalatable or unpromising options when it comes to helping Haiti.

People attend a vigil in honor of Haiti's slain president in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.
Giorgio Viera / AFP / Getty

About the author: James B. Foley is a former U.S. diplomat. He was ambassador to Haiti from 2003 to 2005, and to Croatia from 2009 to 2012.

The shocking assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, raises urgent questions about the country’s future and has serious implications for the United States. As Haiti descends further into chaos, we need to have a realistic understanding of its long history of political turmoil, to better grasp the situation it finds itself in.

Of all the things we must grapple with, none is more important than this: The options facing Washington and the international community when it comes to helping bring stability and some measure of development to Haiti are unpromising or unpalatable. We should therefore focus on what is actually achievable in the face of Haitian realities and constrained U.S. capabilities.

There is no question that foreign powers bear responsibility for the root causes of many of Haiti’s contemporary ills: From the country’s brutal history as a slave colony of France, to its being saddled by France with a crushing indemnity, and treated as a pariah by the U.S. for much of the 19th century. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that Haiti failed to develop functioning government institutions and the rule of law. The other consequence of Haiti’s tragic past has been a ceaseless struggle for power amid a chronic deficit of political legitimacy. The cycle has repeated itself throughout Haitian history: Leaders rise and fall, many meeting a violent end. They rule arbitrarily and sometimes tyrannically, viewing opponents as seditious. Opposition forces mistrust the leaders and often turn to rebellion. No one accepts another’s legitimacy. Politics is zero-sum.

Since the 1950s, Haiti has been caught in a descending vortex, with poverty, overpopulation, environmental devastation, and lawlessness progressively outmatching state capacity from decade to decade. As bad as the situation may be at any given time, it is invariably on a path to something worse. Which brings us to the present, with armed criminal gangs terrorizing the population, and political actors and institutions now completely devoid of authority—the president assassinated, his constitutional successor recently deceased, the legislative body defunct, and successive interim prime ministers of uncertain status.

The U.S. has intervened in Haiti repeatedly over the past century, beginning in 1915 with a nearly 20-year occupation of the country by American Marines—yet this involvement, even including well-intentioned and heavily funded efforts, has been problematic and accomplished little of enduring benefit.

My experience as the U.S. ambassador to Haiti reflected this pattern. I arrived in Port-au-Prince in September 2003, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was halfway through an embattled second term as president. The political opposition refused to accept his legitimacy and demanded his resignation; he was also rejected by a wide range of civil-society groups alienated by the violent tactics of his supporters. The president himself, though still a symbolic champion of Haiti’s impoverished masses, had evidently returned from exile a decade prior cynical about governing but determined to survive according to the traditional rules of Haitian politics. He quickly made a shell of the Haitian National Police, which the U.S. had helped professionalize at great expense, by putting thuggish loyalists in command and stocking its ranks with former gang members. Like many of his predecessors, he turned to criminal street gangs for political muscle, which ultimately became the mainstay of his regime. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Haitian government was also complicit at the highest levels with narcotraffickers.

While I was in Haiti, Aristide resisted meaningful reforms, undoubtedly fearful that cutting ties to gangs and curbing political violence might jeopardize his hold on power. In our meetings, he would invariably insert an odd reference to Florida in a way meant to suggest his ability to provoke a migration crisis, a clear warning to the U.S. to back off. The opposition, meanwhile, was equally intransigent. In scores of meetings with political figures in government and opposition, not once did I hear any of them ever raise or wish to discuss any of Haiti’s massive problems. Perhaps the assumption was that nothing could be done; the focus was always and only on the struggle for power.

Preceding my arrival, the expectation among the opposition and Haiti’s elite was that the Bush administration would soon act unilaterally to achieve its dream of ousting Aristide. And that is what to this day Aristide and his supporters claim actually happened. However, I can say categorically that there was no support in Washington at that time for any kind of intervention or involvement in Haiti. My instructions were above all to forestall any crisis that might trigger a mass migration.

When the reality that the U.S. would not intervene sank in, elements of the opposition and the business community apparently decided to take matters into their own hands by teaming up with exiled former Haitian military figures to launch an armed rebellion, which commenced in February 2004. As they neared Port-au-Prince and chaos mounted in the capital, I aimed to dissuade Aristide from unleashing his partisans to commit mass violence. At the same time, I sought to maneuver to thwart rebel forces and their unseen backers from taking power and instigating a bloodbath of their own. Aristide then deployed his ultimate weapon: appearing to encourage Haitians to flee the country, triggering a large-scale boat exodus that instantly concentrated minds in Washington. When this gambit was blocked by brutal interdiction of migrant boats by U.S. Coast Guard vessels, Aristide asked the U.S. to arrange his safe departure (which he later called a kidnapping). Within hours, the first members of a U.S. Marine–led international stabilization force arrived, barely beating the rebels into the city and preventing them from seizing power.

Our initial hopes that a period of peace and stability afforded by a major international security presence would give Haiti breathing space to begin to grapple with its many challenges did not survive the rapid withdrawal of the U.S.-led force four months later. Although the United Nations peacekeeping mission that followed was unable to prevent a resurgence of violence, it provided enough support to the Haitian National Police to keep outright anarchy at bay. The UN’s decision to completely end this mission in 2019 was therefore fraught with enormous risk, as is obvious today.

The current situation has similarities to what I confronted in 2004, but in some ways it is worse. Then as now, there was no consensus on political legitimacy, and violence ensued. But in 2004, a sitting president of the Haitian Supreme Court, upon Aristide’s resignation, assumed the presidency lawfully, in accordance with the Haitian constitution. Today, the country suffers from a vacuum of lawful authority.

Haiti is again on the edge of an abyss, confronting Washington with a decision on whether to send troops, as requested by the previous interim prime minister. There is no question in my mind that the rapid deployment of U.S. forces in 2004 nipped anarchy in the bud and saved perhaps tens of thousands of lives. Without that intervention, the economy would have been wrecked, state institutions decimated, and a sustained mass migration triggered.

In the current circumstances, I see two basic options facing the Biden administration, along with a potential worst-case scenario.

Option one would be a major international intervention, led by the U.S., aiming to provide Haiti the long-term security and assistance it needs to build a modern state and tackle its many difficulties. To put Haiti on a different trajectory would require an open-ended deployment of international personnel and resources, a commitment that—in 1994, 2004, and 2010—has previously proved unsustainable and, in important respects, counterproductive. This option merits consideration because it accounts for the true magnitude of Haiti’s systemic dysfunction, but it is likely beyond the means of either the U.S. or its international partners.

Option two would be to step back and enable Haitians to determine a way forward for their country. Based on press reporting, this is something favored by many Haitians who regard previous international interventions as not having served Haiti’s interests or benefiting only local elites. A hands-off strategy could in principle enable Haiti to find its own equilibrium, but such an approach rests on the thesis that international efforts have been the principal cause of or contributor to Haiti’s dysfunction, rather than internally driven factors. Untold thousands might perish before an “equilibrium” is reached, and whether Haitians would emerge from turmoil on a path to elections and functional governance is far from certain.

Option two reflects the fact that the U.S. already has huge global challenges and responsibilities and cannot meet them all. It is frankly of the same piece as the decisions the U.S. has made to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and revive an imperfect nuclear accord with Iran. President Joe Biden is confronting painful but necessary choices in foreign policy to shore up U.S. deterrence against potential Russian aggression in Europe and Chinese aggression in Asia.

Washington therefore seems bound to embrace some version of the latter option, which has the advantage of enabling Haitians to take control of their own destiny—fundamental to any hope of meaningful change. But the chances of success for a Haitian government that emerges from elections will still depend on the willingness of the U.S. and its partners to invest the resources required to build state institutions and address Haiti’s overwhelming needs. Washington must also be prepared to support the redeployment of a UN security presence, should that prove indispensable to the holding of successful elections and the viability of a new government.

At the same time, the Biden administration would be prudent to quietly accelerate planning for another contingency. Should the situation in Haiti continue to unravel, deploying American forces temporarily may become necessary to arrest the slide to anarchy. While a UN-led intervention would be preferable, Washington must be prepared to act quickly and unilaterally in the event of a complete collapse of what remains of Haitian state authority.

Because of its geographic proximity as much as its unique dysfunction, Haiti has a way of forcing itself to the top of the U.S. national-security agenda. Should endemic chaos turn into complete anarchy, sending Haitians in large numbers onto rickety boats heading toward Florida, the pressure on Washington to do something will become irresistible. A century’s worth of evidence to this effect led the commander of the U.S. Marines departing Haiti in 2004 to advise his officers: “Don’t throw away your maps. We will certainly be back.”