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Haiti Offers a Reminder Of Lessons From Somalia

WHILE many remember the United States intervention in Somalia as a complete failure, it wasn't. Nor does the Haiti intervention have to be either. The two cases are very different; but the real lessons of Somalia, if applied now, could help ensure progress in Haiti.

Although some 200,000 Somali lives were lost due to needless delays in international assistance, the US military intervention, once ordered, accelerated the end of mass deaths from starvation and disease. After President Bush sent US troops in December 1992, 10,000 to 25,000 lives were saved in several months (in addition to the more than 100,000 saved through previous aid from the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations, United Nations agencies, and government donors).

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The extent to which the US action turned desperation into hope in a critical psychological sense was as important as the saving of lives, according to more than 200 Somalis, relief workers, and civilian and military officials I interviewed over the past year. Many agreed that the intervention created, in the midst of chaos, an opening for progress. It enabled a devastated country to move beyond relief to economic rehabilitation.

One lesson learned in Somalia, therefore, is that a short-term ``shock treatment'' can substantially modify the prevailing psychological climate, creating an opportunity for the people of a country to effect longer-term change themselves.

The US military intervention in Haiti, whether or not the American public fully supports it, has now created a similar opportunity - to overcome three years of US indecisiveness and to open the possibility for a more just and democratic rule in that island nation. But the key in Haiti is to learn from the second ``Somalia lesson'': In order to avoid squandering such an opportunity, the occupying force's role and tenure must be clearly and wisely defined.

In Haiti, as in Somalia, US troops have been greeted enthusiastically by the majority of the people. In Somalia, however, this optimism soured as US troops failed to undertake a significant disarmament, and then, along with the United Nations, engaged in a distracting and dangerous military vendetta against one faction leader, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed.

With more than 26,000 US troops on the ground and Somalis expecting disarmament, destruction of at least heavy arms would have boosted people's morale and ``lowered the temperature'' of future fighting.

Furthermore, rather than engage in urban guerrilla warfare against General Aideed, the United States should have withdrawn by mid-1993 - once the famine had been largely taken care of. Had the US withdrawn, the mission's immediate success would have been clearer, even if Somalia's underlying political problems would have remained unsolved, as indeed they do today.

In contrast to Somalia, the United States has in Haiti the advantage of a democratically elected government with which to cooperate. In Haiti, the occupying force should disarm the previous regime's attaches, police, and military, and the follow-on UN force's mandate should be made absolutely clear. Given the conflicted US-UN relationship in Somalia, US troops should not be included in the UN force in Haiti absent full agreement on a realistic mission scope and objectives.

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It is unfortunately too late to apply the third lesson from Somalia to Haiti. In both cases, the United States long supported despotic regimes and watched passively as they eventually fell. Innocent people suffered and died during and after the transition. The tragedy for the two countries is that humanitarian relief and military reinforcement came so late. Preventive diplomacy was either insufficient or ineffective. ``Muscular diplomacy'' was too long delayed.

In the United States, the Bush and Clinton administrations both were torn between a public demanding an end to the shocking human suffering broadcast on television, and an overlapping public refusing to commit American lives to the kind of action that might involve. We cannot have it both ways. Ambivalence results in impotence and a lack of credibility.

In both Somalia and Haiti, a major argument for inaction was that these countries and their peoples are not key to US national security, and therefore not worth American lives. This argument, however, ignores the effects of instability spreading into neighboring regions, including refugee flows from Haiti into the United States, and from Somalia into US-allied countries such as Kenya. It also ignores the inevitable political pressure within the US to take what then is much more costly action with much higher stakes.

Lesson number three, therefore, is to give political, economic, and moral support only to regimes that have the true interests of their people's well-being at heart. Such support must then be continuous, coherent, and timely.

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