“The most important political event of last year”

A very thoughtful reader of Talking Points Memo on Haiti:

As of today, for all practical purposes, Haiti is an American Protectorate. Its own government, to the extent it ever functioned, has now collapsed. Its major city has been leveled, along with most of the institutions of the state and of civil society. Other states and international institutions will contribute aid and resources. Perhaps the UN will expand its current mission in the nation, and assume formal responsibility. But the only nation capable of keeping Haiti from absolute collapse is the United States. Irrespective of the bodies through which we choose to work, the responsibility is ultimately ours.

The alternatives are almost too horrifying to contemplate – a humanitarian disaster on our doorstep that we could have averted. But the challenges and costs are formidable, and it’s important that we face up to them at once, so that this burden is assumed consciously and deliberately, and not by default.We’re talking about providing forces in the short term, and funding and training forces in the long term, to provide security in a state that has not functioned in a generation. This will require a willingness to exercise force, and yes, a willingness to accept casualties. We’re talking about an ongoing presence measured not in months, but in years. We’re talking about a commitment of funds and resources that makes the initial figure of $100 million seem trivial. We’re talking about the longterm resettlement of population, reconstruction of institutions and infrastructure, and rethinking of the basic fabric of a state. We’ve just seen how difficult and costly it can be to build a state in Iraq and in Afghanistan – I don’t see how to avoid the conclusion that we have just found ourselves again committed to reconstructing a state.

Even if we do not accept the moral burden, even if we hew closely to the cold calculus of realism, we are obliged to act. It is difficult to imagine that desperation will not force thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, to take to the ocean on anything that will float. Many will drown, but many will reach our shores. If we are too callous to provide aid where it is needed, the disaster will wash up on our shores where we cannot avoid it. …

I know that it seems to soon to think of this tragedy as perhaps the most important political event of the last year. But we’re going to be enmeshed in Haiti at least as long as we are in Iraq or Afghanistan – there’s no avoiding that. How this response unfolds, how we structure our responsibilities, whether we choose to assume them alone or through international institutions, what sort of future we design for Haiti – these are vital questions. Ultimately, they are also political questions that will be decided by political actors. And the answers they provide will shape and constrain a wide array of seemingly unrelated policies. It’s not to soon, I think, to make that point.

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