Civil war has broken out in Haiti, barely a month after it tried to celebrate its bicentennial. Once again, the island nation's glorious past -- a slave revolt defeated Napoleon's legions and led to the establishment of the first black republic in 1804 -- has been overshadowed by its dismal present.
Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world, with an unemployment rate of more than 70%, literacy below 55% and average per capita income of $440 a year. AIDS and other diseases are rampant, and life expectancy is 52 years.
Presiding over this mess is President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest who was elected in 1990, toppled by the military in 1991 and then reinstated by the U.S. in 1994. He has dashed the hopes of most of his supporters with a government that is increasingly brutal and corrupt.
It's easy to dismiss Haiti as a hopeless hellhole, but we would do well to pay some attention, not least because it offers important lessons for our current endeavors in Iraq. Haiti is a petri dish of liberal imperialism, American-style, showing both its potential and its pitfalls.
It has been occupied by the U.S. on two occasions. The first of these occurred in 1915, when Haiti was even more chaotic than it is today. After one Haitian president had been torn limb from limb, Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines to restore order. He did so out of a complicated mixture of idealism (he wanted to spread democracy in the Caribbean region) and realpolitik (he wanted to forestall French or German intervention).
Once the unrest had been quelled, Wilson decided he couldn't simply leave Haiti to its own devices. His assistant Navy secretary, Franklin Roosevelt, helped draft a new constitution along with a treaty inviting the U.S. to extend its stay. U.S. Marines ran the gendarmerie, and a Marine general ruled the country throughout the 1920s in conjunction with a handpicked president.
It was not exactly democratic, but under U.S. supervision Haiti enjoyed probably its freest, least corrupt and most peaceful and prosperous decade. The occupiers built roads, hospitals and schools that greatly enriched the country. But, naturally, Haitians chafed under foreign occupation and, with the onset of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt decided to withdraw the Marines in 1934.
Power was turned over to an elected government, but democracy did not last long. A succession of increasingly dictatorial presidents culminated in the rule of the Duvaliers, Francois "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," which lasted until 1986. This was followed by a period of instability that led to another U.S. occupation in 1994.
Bill Clinton's motives in occupying Haiti were roughly similar to Wilson's -- a mixture of idealism (spreading democracy) and self-interest (stopping Haitian boat people from fleeing to the U.S. and keeping the Congressional Black Caucus happy) -- but this time U.S. troops did not stay nearly as long. Most U.S. soldiers left within six months, turning their duties over to ineffectual United Nations peacekeepers. Clinton hoped that Aristide would address the deep problems that remained, but the U.S.-installed president has turned out to be as bad as his predecessors.
There are two important lessons here.
First, elections do not a democracy make. Aristide was elected in 1990, one of his pals won in 1995 and he reclaimed the presidency in 2000 with 92% of the vote. But he has not ruled in a humane or enlightened manner. Haiti was better off in the 1920s than it is today, even though it did not have elections. Balloting is nice, but the rule of law is more important. The two often go together but not always.
Second, American nation-building can work, but only as long as U.S. troops stick around. After 1934, the roads built by U.S. occupiers cracked, the telephones stopped working and thugs once again took control of the government. Haiti made even less progress in the 1990s because the U.S. occupation was briefer.
Applying those lessons to Iraq today, it's obvious that holding an election -- whether through direct balloting, as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani insists, or through caucuses, as U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer III prefers -- has to be a secondary concern. The top priorities must be to create a constitution that upholds basic freedoms and an apolitical security force that upholds the constitution.
And it's vital that the U.S. not rush for the exits. Long-term imperial control, a la Haiti in the 1920s, is no longer acceptable. But American troops have to remain in Iraq for the long haul -- probably decades, as in West Germany or in South Korea -- to nurture that country's democratic development. If they leave prematurely, Iraq will turn into a Haiti with oil wells.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.