The continually unfolding tragedy brought about by the recent earthquake in Haiti has once again raised an age-old debate on the U.S.’s place in the world. The superpower has often been accused of acting as the world’s self-appointed police force, intervening where it sees fit under the auspices of moral obligation. Obama’s decision to send over 10,000 troops to Haiti led to cries of ‘occupation’ and ‘imperialism’ from many critics on the Left, and has provoked an internal debate over the U.S.’s role as “globocop”.
The immediate and important issue to understand is why the U.S. has sent troops to Haiti in the first place. The U.S. army is a modern, well-equipped rapid-response unit that is in Haiti to save lives, and whose presence in Haiti was requested by both the Haitian government and the U.N. The accusation that U.S. troops are invading Haiti or intend to occupy it is false. Critics of the intervention are as predictable as ever, with Hugo Chavez initially accusing the U.S. of using the earthquake as a pretext to occupy the devastated Caribbean country, before later claiming that the U.S. had used a “tectonic weapon” to provoke the ‘quake. While Chavez’s claims are delusional, they are merely an extension of the views held by others on the Left who follow their habitual ethos that any U.S. action must be, by default, evil. One commentator even denounced the U.S. for attempting to “dismantle the Haitian State”. These critics cannot believe that U.S. motives may be mostly altruistic. Ironically, had the U.S. not sent troops to aid the rescue, the same dissenting voices would have lambasted the U.S. as heartless and selfish. In that sense, the U.S. finds itself in a Catch-22 scenario – damned if they do (intervene), damned if they don’t.
Of course, the U.S. has in the past used intervention for less than admirable reasons, a fact compounded by the Bush administration, which has made many in the U.S. and around the globe skeptical towards military deployment for “humanitarian reasons”. The Bush government often linked the Iraq invasion to humanitarian intervention, using the theme as a convenient excuse for U.S. imperialism. Nevertheless, as shown in Haiti, the U.S. military can play a pivotal humanitarian role. During the Rwandan genocide, U.S. inaction cost many lives, but its eventual intervention in the country stopped further massacres. The U.S.’s inaction during the Bosnian genocide of 1995 spurred the U.S. into action in Kosovo in 1999, when there was the threat of another genocide. Add to that the humanitarian relief operations after earthquakes in Greece, Turkey, India, and Pakistan, and it is easy to see that U.S. intervention can be positive. While superpowers like China and Russia may not send much more than condolences to countries suffering humanitarian tragedies, the U.S. is often willing to send its own people to aid those in need.
The U.S.’s world police role extends beyond the realms of military intervention, with many State representatives taking on the unenviable position of mediator in complex international conflicts. U.S. mediation during the Dayton Accords brought an end to the Yugoslav War, through George Mitchell the U.S. helped broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland, and as recently as October 2009, Hilary Clinton was credited with saving a peace agreement between Turkey and Armenia from collapse, thus ending a century-old feud. Even in the volatile Middle East, the U.S. has long acted as a mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict. While many will criticize the U.S.’s inability to reach a lasting peace agreement in the region, no pundit truly believes the situation could be resolved without direct U.S. involvement.
From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the U.S. has a lamentable list of foreign policy failures, but that should not prevent each case for humanitarian intervention from being judged objectively and individually. The U.S. has on some level learned that the consequences of doing nothing are often graver than the consequences of doing something. Too often commentators are quick to question U.S. motives, without giving it the benefit of the doubt. Today, as American soldiers pull Haitian citizens from the rubble, it must be noted that the U.S. still has the ability to be a force for good.
Michael Collins, January 2010