Models of Coming U.S. Interventions: Iraq or Haiti?

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Ben Terrall interviews Mike Davis

BT: I wanted to get in a question about the United Nations in Haiti. In Planet of Slums you talk about the Pentagon’s global approach to counter-insurgency being more focused on a kind of urban warfare. Having gone to Haiti and seeing what the UN is doing, I wonder if you see that as a new role for UN peacekeepers, as a kind of counterinsurgency proxy, in areas where politically, after Mogadishu [the “Black Hawk Down” debacle of U.S. troops in Somalia in the early 1990s —ed.], it’s too risky for U.S. forces to be there.

MD: Well to be honest with you, I’m very disturbed that groups like the Friends [American Friends Service Committee] and CARE, Save the Children and other NGOs have supported the establishment of this State Department Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization and support the Haitian Stabilization Initiative.

This whole idea of having a “smart” foreign policy is what this stuff really is about. I think it was in the Spring of 2006 when the State Department issued this extraordinary report which found almost everything possible wrong with the U.S. occupation of Iraq and then argued for a new policy that avoided expensive reconstruction and in favor of a combination of imposing law and order and then small-scale economic progress.

It’s very clear that’s what’s still going on Iraq with the surge represents the past, but Haiti is the future. And what the United States is looking for, or at least the State Department and almost certainly an Obama or Clinton administration, would be a form of intervention that can establish a minimum threshold of control and stability in the areas recognized as most potentially volatile or dangerous from the standpoint of U.S. interests.

It’s done this in Haiti not only using the UN, including the first Chinese contingent, but it’s part of this extraordinary, and I think much overlooked alliance between the Bush Administration and the Workers Party in power in Brazil, which includes consensus about “peacekeeping” in the Caribbean, but also the joint development of biofuels internationally.

What is also extraordinary about Haiti is that the object of intervention isn’t just Haiti or Port-au-Prince, but it’s specifically Port-au-Prince’s largest slum and probably the poorest in all the Americas, Cite Soleil, with a combination of building police stations and paving roads, and setting up a few popular projects.

It’s explicitly a strategy to take control from the so-called Chimere gangs to the new government of Haiti, in a context where the democratically elected President of Haiti is in exile, and has been deposed by a combination of French, American and Brazilian intervention. It’s quite extraordinary, and I think the program, though relatively small scale, is more the template for the future than the occupation of Iraq.

In a world where a lot of governments have been reduced to a bare minimum after structural adjustment, where huge areas of the cities have been essentially abandoned by the state, how do you re-establish state control, how do you prevent groups of any kind from achieving dual power and sovereignty in the slums?

The experiment in Cite Soleil is supposed to provide a model for that, and a model for future U.S. interventions. In a sense it meets [neoconservative author] Max Boot’s demand in a column last year that the United States should basically have a Department of Colonial Affairs — well, that’s the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization.

BT: One things that’s clear to me, from following what’s going on in Haiti since the 2004 coup, which forced out Aristide and his democratically elected government, is the role that NGOs play in taking back democracy from the people. This has been the case since before the coup. I recently heard from a grassroots group that does work with the poor in Cite Soleil. Just to keep people alive they’re ready to give over the group to these right-wing funded characters behind the coup.

MD: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think the State Department has now made explicit — and indeed even the Bush Administration, by transferring the primary responsibility for stabilization, at least theoretically, from the Pentagon to the State Department — that throughout the world the United States is going to work with these NGOs, and these NGOs are kind of soft-power American intervention.

But what I find very disturbing is that groups like the Friends, who for so long have advocated for peace and nonintervention, would endorse a policy where basically the small-scale job schemes, and free clinics, are part and parcel of strengthening the police and dramatically repressive strategies. For them to buy into this line, I wonder if this is not what a Clinton or Obama administration would give us on an even larger scale. Of course, McCain is more apt to keep using a big stick.

I think people are so focused on the horror of what the American intervention in Iraq has brought that they’re not paying attention — and, of course, nobody’s being forced to debate — what’s happening in Haiti, what’s happening in the horn of Africa, U.S. interventions in West Africa. It’s just all off the radar screen.

BT: A politically engaged geography professor wanted me to ask you how activists might effectively counter the nationalist logic that governs discussion on matters of immigration (emphasizing “illegality” and the supposed “right” of countries to control their boundaries and who comes in and out).

MD: My position on this is virtually the same as many people in the Catholic Church — including those with whom I would disagree with vehemently on other issues — which is that human rights come first, that borders are essentially systems of violence imposed on landscapes and human lives.

It’s very important that there’s something like an abolitionist minority that reject borders as a way to ration rights in the world or to manage conflicts. There are differences between borders: The U.S./Mexican border is fighting against an inexorable fact, which is that Mexicans and North America are totally entangled. Europe, which already has its own internal Mexicos, like Poland, would try to go to an absolute border, and to have an almost Orwellian-type border patrol. This is what a lot of the nativists in the country want to do, to move toward something more like the Schengen system in Europe, total exclusion, total control.

But the violence of borders, and the number of wall borders, of course, has increased exponentially. A lot more people die now at the borders of Europe than they did in the age of the Iron Curtain.

ATC 134, May-June 2008