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Archive for September, 1994

[Originally published in the Burlington Free Press.]

The Clinton Administration is currently indicating a clear willingness to intervene militarily in Haiti.  This is an important milestone, because the administration has for some time been attempting to define a new foreign policy for the post-bipolar world that involves the use of US military power to put down certain local and regional conflicts.

Foreign policy revision is a necessary national exercise, but what is getting obscured here is the fact that conflicts we are now facing often are the result of hundreds, even thousands of years of ethnic, national or religious hatreds.  They are now reerupting because of the breakdown of central authority in the post-bipolar world.  Such conflicts in the former USSR, its satellites and its former client states or anywhere else, do not lend themselves to quick fixes.

We are now observing the results of centuries of European colonial domination, particularly in Africa.  In the process of putting together their empires they created what looked to them to be tidy nation states based on European models, even though the states created (Nigeria, Rwanda, etc.) reflected absolutely no African political or tribal realities.  Those difficulties have been compounded by the end of the cold war which had previously brought some measure of stability to American and Soviet client states.

Quite frankly, East and West alike viewed Africa primarily as a surrogate battleground.  Very little that was done there was based on any genuine desire to improve the lot of Africans.  Most of it was done to show the “superiority” of either the Soviet or American systems.

We are currently looking at the possibility of intervention In Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia. If we add in Somalia and Iraq where we already have recently intervened, are there any perceptible common threads?

It is probably safe to say that intervention in Iraq and Bosnia represent our national interests.  The only common thread in the other three is that they are all black countries.  It is likely that our preoccupation with them, as opposed to Bosnia where the carnage has been equally as horrendous, reflects the long overdue and growing involvement and influence of black American leadership in our foreign policy formulation.  Randall Robinson has recently exercised considerable influence on US foreign policy.

This is an extremely complicated issue, and American black leaders will have to learn to balance their understandable and legitimate interests in international black issues with the overall national interests of this country.  If they can do that, they will avoid the inevitable complications that have come in white-dominated foreign policy when decisions have been based on internal US political considerations rather than on objective facts and our acknowledged national interests.

Military intervention in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, or any other area, incurs long range obligations.  If we decide to intervene in those countries we will have accepted, like it or not, a long term custodial responsibility for first establishing and then keeping the peace.  We will not be able to stop the fighting and/or killing and then go home.  We seem somehow to have forgotten that as a result of a previous intervention, we spent almost two decades occupying Haiti, a country that has never had either democracy or stability of any kind.

This is not to say that we should not intervene either in Haiti or elsewhere.  It is only to point out that any such intervention will cost lives and resources and will require a major post-conflict commitment that could cost millions and last decades.   Even though we call ourselves the only superpower in the world, we do not have sufficient resources for unlimited interventions.  We got around that problem in the Gulf War by supplying the troops while others supplied the money.  Is that to be our future role – Hessians to the world?

Any new policy of suppressing conflicts where there is no real national interest will bring the same problems and ultimately negative political results.  If the Clinton Administration is arguing that such a policy is generically in our national interest, there needs to be a national debate on that change.  There simply has not been sufficient public examination and discussion of that issue.

Haviland Smith is a retired former CIA Station Chief who specialized in Soviet and East European operations.  He served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington and now lives in Brookfield.

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