For the first time in a century, American intervention in Haiti is justified and necessary.  Unlike previous U.S. interventions, undertaken since the Wilson administration, aiding Haitian earthquake recovery will not mean supplanting local government or taking sides in internal political quarrels.  The devastation from the January 12 earthquake has so overwhelmed the limited resources of the Haitian government that the U.S. and other neighbors should provide reconstruction, logistical and security assistance beyond the immediate emergency.

There is a genuine American interest in at least restoring Haitian institutions to what they were before the earthquake.  Aside from the humanitarian concern for the population of Haiti, a failed state in the Caribbean would become a nexus of drug and human trafficking into the southern United States.  While failing states on the other side of the planet, such as Somalia and Yemen, pose very limited security threats to U.S. interests, the collapse of Haiti would swamp the southern U.S. with refugees at a time when state resources are stretched especially thin.  If Haiti is not made relatively stable and secure, Haiti’s neighbors, including the U.S., will bear the costs of that failure for decades.

As a general rule, U.S. interventions are a symptom of Washington’s refusal to exercise power prudently. Most of the time, the reasons given for intervention are pretexts to establish a military or political foothold in a region, and far from coming to the aid of the established government, most interventions are directed at undermining or destroying them (see Iraq). When they are not flatly illegal, interventions often do great harm to the populations they are meant to aid.  On those occasions when interventions have been launched to “restore democracy,” as the Clinton administration did in Haiti in 1994, they more often than not install a regime no less corrupt or brutal than the regime deposed.  Even interventions that have been sold to the public as efforts to prevent genocide, which at first seem laudable and necessary, may not be so clear-cut, requiring U.S. entry into the midst of complex conflicts in which there are typically abundant grievances and crimes on all sides. 

One thing that ties all of these sorts of interventions together is a tiresome impulse to meddle in other states’ internal affairs and to try to resolve their political problems, sometimes against the wishes of their citizens.  All such interventions depend on an expansive, almost limitless, definition of the national interest, which bogs down our government with global responsibilities and engagements it does not need and cannot afford. 

This time, Washington has no urge to usher in dramatic political transformation, nor will U.S. forces be engaged in major hostilities with the population.  The usual suspicions -- that the U.S. seeks to exploit another country’s resources -- don’t apply in Haiti, where resources are negligible. Likewise, Haiti is hardly a stage for projecting U.S. military power across the globe.  Finally, unlike so many past U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, intervention in Haiti isn’t driven by efforts to extract payment for Haiti’s creditors or to secure private corporate interests.

By organizing a substantial security force to maintain order in the short term, and dispatching civilian reconstruction teams modeled on the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) used in Iraq, Washington could answer the request of Haiti’s government, delivering needed supplies, funds and security that the Haitian government cannot presently muster.  The U.S. can also provide engineers and reconstruction crews to rebuild critical infrastructure.  Once essential infrastructure, minimal state institutions and basic public services have been restored, the U.S. presence can be scaled back.

There is an immediate need, and a clear responsibility, for the predominant regional power to step forward in Haiti. But there is also a direct relationship between disaster in Haiti and the protection of U.S. interests. Sustained, active assistance to Haiti for at least five years will do some good for America’s reputation in the region. It will also help keep an already wrecked country from slipping deeper into ruin, and secure the U.S. against the costs of a defunct nation-state of nine million people a few hundred miles from our shores. 

Non-intervention is a wise approach in most instances. But provided that our presence in Haiti is not an intrusion, and so long as our goals are limited and obtainable, we should use American wealth, technical capacity and power to assist our neighbor during a genuinely extraordinary emergency.  It would be absurd for the U.S. to neglect our neighbor while we occupy hostile lands on the other side of the world.