Opinion | Should America Intervene in Haiti? ‘Go to Hell’ and Other Views – The New York Times

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.
Like a lot of you, I’ve been reading Nick Kristof’s work for a long time. He’s been writing about human rights and foreign Affairs since before I was born. And over the years, I’ve disagreed with him about a lot of things, like Nick is an Oregon State Beavers fan. And more importantly, he also thought that invading Libya was a good thing for Libyans. It. Wasn’t I don’t know how columnist, Lydia Polgreen feels about Oregon State. But I do know that she has spent a lot of time reporting on international conflicts, particularly in the global South. So I invited them on to talk about if, when, and how the U.S. Should intervene in other countries. More specifically, we’re talking about Haiti.
For many people listening to this podcast, you may know more about voting rights in Maricopa County than what’s happening in Haiti. So let me catch you up. The U.S. and Haiti go back, way back. And we’ve this habit of intervening every once in a while. And historically, that hasn’t gone very well. Look up 1915, 1994, 2004. Now it’s 2022. And Haiti is in crisis. The country is facing brutal gang violence, extreme hunger and intense political turmoil, sparked by the president’s assassination last year. And this past October, the widely unpopular acting prime minister put out a call for international military assistance, which means the U.S. Has another chance to intervene. But should we?
Both Lydia and Nick have spent time in Haiti. And they have different ideas about what would help Haiti most.
Well, Lydia, Nick, hello, and welcome to the show.
Great to be on.
Thanks for having us, Jane.
So I want to talk about if and how the United States should intervene in Haiti. But before we get there, I’m wondering, on a scale of one to 10, with one being the most isolationist and 10 being the most interventionist, where do you fall these days, on America’s role, broadly speaking, in the world. Nick, my sense is that you’re more willing to support American intervention than Lydia might be. Would you both say that’s fair?
I think that might be true. I tend to be somewhat more willing to support interventions than many people who were similar to me on the spectrum.
I think that Nick and I probably are closer together in views than further apart. I think our differences probably come down more to vibes than they do to actual sort of substance. I’m very preoccupied by questions of sovereignty and of power relations between countries. And I do worry about intervention being a sort of Trojan Horse for assertion of power of other kinds.
You talked about how there’s a vibe difference between you on this issue. Nick, what do you think that difference is? And where do you think it comes from, perhaps?
I do think that it’s probably a function of being shaped, in part, by Bosnia, and what was going on in that war, and then, again, deep frustration with Darfur and Syria, and thinking that there were tools in the toolbox, and we let people die because we were too focused on the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.
So I want to use Haiti as a specific example of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. And then we’re going to talk more broadly about U.S. Intervention. Lydia, the humanitarian crisis in Haiti right now has been ongoing. And it feels as if it’s descended into even greater freefall, over the last year and a half. But it’s been ongoing, in many ways, for, I think, a long time. For those of us who may not as much about what’s going on, what is happening in Haiti more recently?
Haiti has really been in freefall, in an acute way, since the assassination of its president in July of 2021. That set off just a whole series of events that have just plunged the country deeper and deeper and deeper into crisis.
But you’ve ended up with a country that has a very, very weak prime minister, who essentially has very, very little, or really no constitutional legitimacy or authority. And there is this overlapping series of crises. There’s a security crisis that comes from the gangs that have taken over upward of 60 percent of the capital city, Port Au Prince. There is a crisis that we’re all experiencing, which is inflation, rising prices, food scarcity.
And all of these things, coming together, have left us in a situation where you have a government that does not have a lot of legitimacy. There’s a tremendous amount of violence. These gangs have taken over the port, for example. So even if you had money to buy something, there’s nothing coming in or out.
Now there’s a cholera outbreak. And actually, the acting prime minister of Haiti has asked for security assistance in dealing with the gang problem, because the Haitian police have not been able to get a handle on it, and setting the country on a more stable course. That sounds like a great idea. They need more stability. But it actually turns out to be a lot more complicated than that.
So could you tell me a little bit — what’s unique about the United States’ relationship with Haiti?
It really is a special case because this is really right in our backyard. One of the things that makes the Biden administration, I’m sure, very queasy about the situation in Haiti right now is that we’re, at the moment, dealing with a political climate, around immigration and our borders, that is incredibly toxic. And the terms are being defined by the hard right.
Haitians have always been very convenient bogeymen in the narratives around immigration and the border, and immigration enforcement. For a long time, the United States essentially tried to cut Haiti off from the broader world and refused to recognize its independence.
Haiti was, really, the first and only successful slave revolt. It created an independent Black nation in the Western hemisphere. This was a huge threat to the United States, back when we were still totally down with enslaving people.
But in 1915, the United States essentially invaded Haiti. U.S. Marines came to the country. They had absconded with half a million dollars, which I think was most of the foreign reserves of the Haitian government at the time, for quote, unquote, “safekeeping.” And they sort of ran roughshod over Haitian sovereignty for a very, very long time.
And that was really the beginning of what I think has been a very, very sad and ongoing history of aggressive invasion, intervention, by the United States, in Haiti, that has continued, in various forms, right up to the present.
Nick, you’ve been covering crises for decades, which is an unfortunate sentence to need to say. How do you see the current situation in Haiti?
One of the things that I’ve learned in covering these kind of crises is that, when you don’t have some kind of order, it’s impossible to do other kinds of aid. You can’t provide food to kids who are starving, you can’t provide clean water, you can’t provide sanitation, you can’t help reduce maternal mortality.
Haiti is in this situation where it’s just spiraling out of control. On the other hand, I think, probably, most Haitians, at this point, would not welcome an armed intervention. I think that the last thing the Biden administration wants to do is intervene. There are more problems in international relations than there are solutions. And I think Haiti, right now, is one example of that.
When we’re talking about intervention, I want to make sure that we’re using a common parlance because I think that for many people, when you hear “intervention” you might think Iraq or Afghanistan, or a U.S.-backed coup-ousted president, which, by the way, we have done in Haiti, maybe twice. So I’m curious, Lydia, if there was an intervention, what should it look like if it were to take place?
Well, I think the way that I would reframe the question is, what does Haiti need to get back on its feet right now? And I think that the first and most important thing that it needs is some sort of path to a political future and settlement that has legitimacy in the eyes of the Haitian people.
And in a lot of the places that Nick and I have both spent a lot of time, covering conflict, covering humanitarian crises, there is this impulse from the International community, often driven by the United States, that let’s get in there, let’s stabilize the situation, let’s have an election, and then we’ll have a legitimate government. And then we can get the heck out of there.
And I think that in Haiti, that option is actually a terrible one. I personally have been through a lot of hastily-organized elections in places that are complete basket cases. But you’ll have a of technically free and fair, but ultimately not particularly representative election, that doesn’t actually solve anything.
And so I think that my impulse is to try and find a way to create some kind of transitional government in Haiti that can then assert some sort of sovereignty and authority on behalf of the Haitian people. And that government could then turn to the international community and say, hey, we need help. We need security help.
And in that case, I think if a sovereign government, that has the legitimate support of the people of that country, says to the international community, we want your help, then that’s a completely different situation than the one that Haiti is in right now.
One thing I really agree with Lydia on is the way in which, from the outside, we tend to just equate democracy with elections. And it’s so much more complicated. In Congo, the international community spent almost a billion dollars on holding an international election there. And it enabled the international community to wash its hands to say, OK, we did an election. But meanwhile, a slaughter went on across the country. Overall, some 5 million people died. And the election fundamentally didn’t solve things.
In her column, Lydia wrote about the Montana Accord, which is an effort by civil society to reassert itself and create a consensus about where the country goes from here. The rest of the international community could support such an effort. I’m pretty skeptical that will work because goodwill isn’t always a match for a bunch of guys with guns. So I think it’s just a horrendous problem. But at this juncture, I don’t really see any kind of an intervention that makes a big difference.
So I think that actually brings up an interesting question for me. We were talking about creation of civil society and having elections. And I’m a huge fan of civil society and elections. But if you are talking to people on the ground, they will all have different ideas as to what’s best for Haiti or what’s best for any country.
Lydia, how do you make that work, especially when the Montana Accord, it’s representative of Haitian unions, churches, professional groups, voodoo groups, and those and the diaspora. But it is also coming from a group of people who — are they representative of the people of Haiti, of the people who are likely to be on the ground?
This is, I think, one of the hardest questions to answer is, how do you how do you ascertain what the actual will of the Haitian people is and what Haitians really want for the future. I first went to Haiti in 2003. And that was the time when Haiti was in a very different crisis. It was in a crisis over the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was this incredibly charismatic, former Catholic priest, who was the first legitimately democratically-elected leader in Haiti’s history, and I think a figure of just enormous charisma.
He’d been overthrown in a coup. Then the Clinton administration helps bring him back. And it’s this tremendous moment of hope that Haiti is going to get back on track. And it’s interesting because, of course, Jean-Bertrand Aristide ended up being overthrown again.
And the thing that was really striking to me was that everywhere that I went, every time I’d ask people, who is the figure that represents the aspirations and the hopes of the Haitian people, the only name that people could come up with was Aristide. It should be said, Aristide had a very flawed record. And a lot of the problems that we’re seeing today really started with Aristide and his presidency, empowering these popular groups, in neighborhoods, that then turned into these kind of politically-inflected gangs.
So the narrative in most Haitians minds, that I talked to, is, we had a president who we loved and who we supported. America didn’t like him. And he was overthrown. America decided to bring him back. And then they decided they didn’t like him again. And he was again overthrown.
And people look at the United States and just say, no thank you. Go to hell. We don’t want your involvement in our life. You’ve brought us only pain and only suffering.
Well, I think that gets to a conversation, a little bit, about interventions, more generally. Nick, you’ve been very public about supporting some U.S. interventions, like in Kosovo in 1999, and opposing others, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When you look at a situation like what’s happening in Haiti, how do you decide if a humanitarian intervention is justified? Are there metrics that you use to decide when you should engage or should not engage? Because it’s really hard.
No, it’s incredibly hard. I don’t think there is an algorithm that enables one to figure out, OK, we go in. But I think there are some considerations. One is, it genocide. I think that in the case of genocide, we should be a little more inclined to do what we can than simply in cases where there is high mortality from other causes.
And so in Rwanda, for example, I think we probably should have, in 1994. In Darfur, I don’t think we should have sent boots on the ground. I think we should have tried to affect the calculations of the Sudanese government in other ways, to discourage them from slaughtering people of particular ethnic groups. Kosovo, I think that was maybe the one case in American history where we did avert a genocide at almost no cost in life. I think that was really kind of heroic.
I think that attitudes have changed over the years. So my generation came of age with Vietnam. And that taught us that one should never intervene, that it’s a catastrophe. And then along came the Balkans and Bosnia and Kosovo. And we saw people being slaughtered because of a reluctance to intervene. And so I think that helped change my thinking, and that of a lot of liberals. And then Iraq and Afghanistan turned people the other way around.
I guess I never fully turned the other way around. I was obviously against Iraq. I thought it was a catastrophe. But I also would note that in Northern Iraq and Kurdistan, we had a no-fly zone that wasn’t military intervention. And it saved a huge number of lives.
I think that it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. And one factor is, is there a genocide? One factor is, do people want us to intervene? And in Haiti, I think they pretty much don’t. I think it’s hard to see how you would have a successful intervention if local people don’t want us there.
Lydia, what metrics do you — metrics might not be the right term. But what do you —
What vibes?
What vibes do you use to decide if you’re supportive of an intervention?
I think the place where I’m definitely with Nick is, if you are dealing with a genocide, then it seems clear that there needs to be some sort of action, although there are going to be cases where — look at what’s going on — we’re not going to invade China over what’s happening to the Uyghurs.
It’s horrific. But we’re not going to start World War III over it, which is tragic, but I think reflective of the fact that we live in the real world, and that certain states have the ability to exempt themselves from the norms that we expect from the world that we live in today. I think that it’s natural that there is this pendulum swing, back and forth.
We tend to overestimate the cost of repeating history and underestimate the cost of fighting the last war. And so that means that you’re constantly swinging back and forth between what seems like a good idea and what seems like a terrible idea. And the answer is often, it depends. And I think that this cycle that we’re in, this anti-interventionist moment is also related to that. We’ve gotten into these situations where it just feels like things have gone too far.
After the break, how immigration policy dictates our relationship with Haiti. And stay with me to the very end of this episode for a big announcement.
Nick, we’ve been talking a little bit about what we would want in Haiti, or what Haitians would want. And those are two very different questions. So what does success look like for Haiti? And what does success in Haiti look like for the United States?
Success in Haiti is going to be measured by enough tranquility that people can actually live their lives, the economy can recover, people can educate their kids, things we take for granted that are just, right now, completely missing.
There’s this misperception in the U.S., that Haiti is just this inevitable basket case, that nothing ever works. And governance has been, generally, a disaster, ever since the Duvaliers and before. But actually, by social metrics, there’s been real progress. In 1950, more than a third of kids died by the age of five. Now it’s down to 6 percent, which is horrendous and awful. But compared to 1950, it’s a huge gain.
Fertility, the number of live births per woman, is down to less than three from — I think it was seven in the 1960s. So progress is possible. But the governance is where the real failure has been.
I also think, though, that in Haiti, there is this deep and fundamental need for a restructuring of the political and social and economic compacts that govern the country. And I think a lot of what lies at the root of Haiti’s problems is that it’s an importer of goods. We haven’t talked at all about the transshipment of narcotics. Haiti is an incredibly important transshipment point. And there’s a lot of money that flows through Haiti for that reason. And there are a lot of people who want that to continue. Lawlessness benefits them.
When Lydia mentions transshipment of drugs, it just reminds me of another point, that there is a trans shipment going the other direction, of guns, from Florida and the U.S., to Haiti. And that’s one of the reasons these gangs are so well armed. Looking back, that would have been one of the most effective ways we might have been able to help Haiti, is to try to crack down on that one aspect, I think, of our responsibility for what’s going on there.
So I think that essential to improving all of those metrics that Nick was talking about, there needs to be a fundamental rethinking of how the political economy of the country works, that will open up more opportunity for investment, for entrepreneurship, and break up this predatory elite that really, most Haitians will tell you, feels like a boot on the neck of the ordinary Haitian.
Lydia, you pointed out, in your first Times Opinion column, that when you were reporting in Haiti in 2004, many of your sources were bilingual and educated social elites who could get their voices out there. And it’s not just Haiti. I keep thinking about the people who are able to leave, at some point, or in many cases, need to leave. They represent a small and unique minority. How do you think about those voices? You recognize, clearly, that they might have a different perspective. But how does that change your view?
This is one of the things that I think about all the time, in terms of our role as journalists. And having been a foreign correspondent for a long time, you’re always, inevitably, influenced by the people who speak your language, both literally and metaphorically. It’s very easy to take their views as a consensus view. And you make that mistake once, and then you never do it again.
And know Haiti was my Waterloo, with that regard. And I think I learned the lesson well. And it really changed the course of my career in a lot of ways.
But as you were speaking, I was actually thinking about Afghanistan. And in the chaos of the pullout of American troops, there was a lot on social media about Afghan women, and this was going to set them back. And it’s absolutely heart rending to think about the amount of progress that has been made for women and girls in Afghanistan, and what the departure of the United States, military, might mean. And we have seen that it has not meant great things since that happened.
But I remember also reading an exceptional piece in The New Yorker, by Anand Gopal, about the experience of women rural Afghanistan, who basically were like, we’re constantly looking up at the sky and waiting for bombs to fall and kill everyone we love.
And that was the actual lived experience of many, many, many, many people in Afghanistan over the course of our humanitarian intervention. And so it should chasten and humble us as we think about our ability to help people. And exactly who we’re helping is a question that we should always be asking ourselves.
Yeah, I think it should humble us, but also not paralyze us. Tony Blair is kind of interesting because I think he deeply believed in principles of humanitarian intervention. And he spoke about them. And then the intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, it was so successful that I think it led to a certain hubris in the case of Iraq. And I thought he thought, oh, they’re going to greet us with flowers. We’re going to win easily.
And it was, of course, the catastrophe that has destroyed his reputation, et cetera. To me, one of the lessons is that we can’t be ideological about this. And all the decisions have to be ad hoc, and recognizing the differences between countries, and how difficult it is, and what the broad spectrum of options are.
But there is a toolbox. And we shouldn’t be ideological, either, about using it. Or in the case of places like Rwanda or elsewhere, about not using it.
Lydia, you mentioned how entwined the United States and Haiti are. And it’s not just history. It’s thinking about immigration patterns. It’s thinking about the more than a million Haitian Americans who live in the United States, predominantly in Florida. What do you think the consequences are, for the United States, of not doing anything? It feels like not getting involved with Haiti, is that even really an option for the United States?
We are involved. There’s no question that we are involved. And I think that there are not a ton of ways to uninvolve ourselves. I do think, though, that the consequences of continuing to take a very hands-off approach are actually not that dire. I think that the migration question is always going to be a present one.
And the cruel policy that the Biden administration is continuing, which is to just send people right back, is a policy that they’ve been able to keep, despite the fact that it’s morally abhorrent. But I actually think that there is not actually a hugely — tremendous amount of urgency, on the part of the United States government, to do something here, because I think the primary cost is to Haitians, not to the United States.
And Haiti is not unique. I mean, there are real parallels with what happened in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, to what is now happening in Haiti. And you had gangs that went through rural areas, and displaced farmers, and stole everything they had. And people died as a result.
And the U.S. Tried to affect governance, to some degree, here and there. But it certainly didn’t ever think about a military intervention in recent times. And I think likewise, the Biden administration would be incredibly unwilling to send troops there.
What this actually highlights to me — and I think this is a real sign of the times in which we live, and I think also a failure on the part of the Democratic Party to resist it — but the conversation in this country around immigration, migration, asylum, refugees, all of that stuff, it’s really being dictated by not just the right, but the far right.
If there’s one thing that I could wave my wand and change, it would be to take this venom out of our conversation around who’s coming to the United States because it, in some ways, I think, has become the central, deciding factor, in American foreign policy, toward Latin America, the Caribbean. And basically, the question is, will this government allow us to put people on planes and send them right back, if they come to our border? And if the answer is yes, that government essentially has a blank check, from the United States, to do whatever they like.
Right. We see that in North Africa with refugees attempting to go to Germany. We’re basically like, we will pay you whatever you want. It’s like blackmail. It is human blackmail.
Yeah, and this is, to me, I think one of the most profound and troubling moral issues of our time. And the way in which it’s just completely seized the imagination of all of these political structures is to me, just a profound tragedy.
So my last question for both of you — I want to zoom out a bit. Nick, do you think that the U.S. Should be doing less intervention in general?
You know, I think it’s hard to quantify them.
I think that simply speaking out makes a difference. We saw — and Lydia and I both covered Darfur. And you could see that when government simply spoke out about it, then the pace of killing and rape declined. It didn’t go away. But outside scrutiny really did make a difference in the scale of it.
I think that in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people died because we were too allergic, after Iraq, to intervene, in the sense of supporting particular groups. And then it became impossible.
So I think we have to recognize the incredible range of options. It’s not typically going to be boots on the ground. But this is so, so difficult. And I think that one of the lessons is just, any time you hear somebody who’s too confident about what to do, run the other direction.
Yeah. I find extremely confident people, with extremely confident opinions, very anxiety inducing. As with any conversation about U.S. Intervention, I’m left just as confused as I was beforehand. But I think that’s OK. As we said, certainty is not good. So —
Confused is good. Confused breeds humility.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, Jane.
Thank you. [MUSIC]
Lydia Polgreen and Nick Kristof are New York Times Opinion columnists.
And now, for those of you who have made it this far, I have some news. “The Argument” is ending. And this is the second-to-last episode.
I’ve been hosting the show for nearly two years. In that time, we’ve debated so many of the biggest issues on your minds, from abortion, to the death penalty, to should we talk to aliens. I’ve loved reading your emails and listening to your voicemails every week. And I’ve loved sitting in this chair and talking with guests who vehemently disagree, with me and with each other, and getting to watch them actually listen to each other.
It’s been a pleasure and it’s been a real honor. I’ll have more to say next week, in our final episode. But if you’re wondering where I’m going, don’t worry. I’m staying at The Times.
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And now, for some real credit to the wonderful people who made the show every week, we’re proudly produced by Phoebe Lett, Vishakha Darbha and Derek Arthur. Edited by Alison Bruzek and Amber Von Schassen, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Michelle Harris. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.

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The United States has a long history of military intervention in other countries. Today, Haiti is in crisis. The country is facing gang violence, extreme hunger and intense political turmoil, sparked largely by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year. And with a call from acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, requesting international military assistance, the United States faces a familiar question: To intervene or not to intervene?
[You can listen to this episode of “The Argument” on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]
To discuss, Jane Coaston brings together New York Times Opinion columnists Lydia Polgreen and Nick Kristof, who both have firsthand experience in Haiti. Their careers covering crises in other countries have shaped how they view U.S. intervention in the country and elsewhere around the world. “There are more problems in international relations than there are solutions, and I think Haiti, right now, is one example of that,” Kristof says.
‘This Is It. This Is Our Chance.’ It’s Time for Everyone to Get Out of Haiti’s Way.” by Lydia Polgreen for The New York Times
The Other Afghan Women” by Anand Gopal for The New Yorker
(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)
Thoughts? Email us at argument@nytimes.com or leave us a voice mail message at (347) 915-4324. We want to hear what you’re arguing about with your family, your friends and your frenemies. (We may use excerpts from your message in a future episode.)
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“The Argument” is produced by Phoebe Lett, Vishakha Darbha and Derek Arthur. Edited by Alison Bruzek and Amber Von Schassen. Original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Michelle Harris. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.


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