Shadow Government

Thinking Big In Haiti

By Peter Feaver The horrible tragedy in Haiti is an opportunity to put the Obama administration’s mantra — “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” — to the test. Reasonable people can debate whether the administration has wasted opportunities at home (the domestic economic crisis) or abroad (Iran political crisis). But in ...

THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

By Peter Feaver

The horrible tragedy in Haiti is an opportunity to put the Obama administration’s mantra — “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” — to the test. Reasonable people can debate whether the administration has wasted opportunities at home (the domestic economic crisis) or abroad (Iran political crisis). But in Haiti they get a fresh chance to apply that mantra.

Of course, the primary focus should be on getting aid as quickly as possible to the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who are suffering. The Obama administration’s initial response has been adequate but hopefully is just a down-payment. More can and should be done and, I expect, will be done. 

But I also expect that there are more opportunities in this crisis than merely rushing in humanitarian aid (as important as that is). While the first-responders in the administration are straining every nerve to ramp up their efforts, I hope the strategic planners in the administration (who do not have operational responsibility for responding) are also busy thinking of ways to have the response to the crisis address more fundamental concerns.

The Bush administration’s response to the late 2004 tsunami is instructive in this regard. Beyond meeting the initial humanitarian goals of helping alleviate the suffering, the Bush administration was able to have the U.S. response address three other goals:

(1) to reinforce a powerful counter-narrative to al Qaeda’s propaganda that the United States was at war with Muslims. Al Qaeda’s charge was never true — no country has done more to defend and assist Muslims in recent decades than the United States — but it resonated nonetheless. The irrefutable evidence of the United States taking the lead in helping the tsunami victims, many of whom were Muslim, and of doing more, faster than others were able to do (and doing it with military assets) still stands as the single greatest success in the ongoing war of ideas with what President Obama calls the network of violence and hatred.

(2) to demonstrate the utility of action-based multilateralism rather than deliberation-based multilateralism. Now that the label “coalitions of the willing” has been replaced with a more politically correct label of “minilateralism,” the fashionable set of foreign policy pundits has finally embraced it. But, of course, this is precisely the kind of multilateralism that the Bush administration pursued all along, whether the issue was Iraq (the original coalition of the willing), Iran (P5+1), North Korea (6 Party Talks), Middle East Peace (the Quartet), WMD proliferation (Proliferation Security Initiative), or tsunami relief. It must be said, however, that no Bush effort at minilateralism worked as well as did the Regional Core Group, the ad hoc coalition created to lead the tsunami response and especially to provide the early bridge response before the older established agencies could get on the scene to do what they did best. The Regional Core Group is the best example of the action-oriented international cooperation the administration sought, often unsuccessfully, to promulgate.

(3) to help the Indonesian government reestablish responsible governance over regions, especially Aceh, that posed serious security problems before they were devastated by the tsunami. This goal has not been fully met, but the situation is better than what it had been and was an important opportunity that would otherwise not have been available.

I do not know what the similar opportunities are in the Haitian crisis, but I am confident that they exist. Haiti has been the victim of mismanagement and malgovernance for decades, producing misery no less profound than the dramatic pictures that we see today. Perhaps the earthquake has so broken the government that a whole new structure, one that will more closely approximate the goal of effective democracy — human liberty, protected by democratic institutions — can be established. Whatever the opportunities are, it should be the urgent priority of the strategic planners in the Obama administration to identify them and to sketch out ways of meeting them in the weeks and months to come.

Let us do everything we can to help Haiti, but let us not waste this serious crisis to do more than just meet the immediate first-aid needs.

UPDATE: Already, President Obama has made a good down-payment on the mantra by asking his two immediate predecessors to lead the bipartisan fundraising efforts for Haitian relief. This takes a page from Bush’s playbook — he similarly asked his two predecessors (Clinton and Bush 41) to lead the disaster relief fundraising. More importantly, it is an excellent use of the crisis to get past the Anything But Bush syndrome that has afflicted the Obama Team this first year. President Bush’s decision to tap President Clinton for tsunami relief paved the way for the more intensive outreach across the aisle on foreign policy matters that characterized Bush’s second term (compared to the first). Perhaps Obama’s action will likewise pave the way for more intensive outreach to Republicans in Obama’s second year. 

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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