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Playing Dangerous Games in the Name of Democracy

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, toasting a foreign dignitary in 1943, praised that leader's country. ``It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world,'' he said. ``It is an amazing place. I strongly recommend that whenever you get a chance, if you haven't been there, that you go to Haiti.''

In one of the strongest and potentially most embarrassing twists of American diplomacy in years, we have now sent the United States military off to take FDR's advice.

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Our mission - essentially to create a functioning democracy where none has existed before - poses substantial risks to US military morale and readiness and places thousands of US troops in harm's way. The ease of the operation so far should not blind us to its costs and dangers. We have placed our fragile national credibility at risk in a country where we have no vital national interests. Meanwhile, the course of post-cold-war history is being decided in places like Russia, China, and North Korea, and no one seems to notice.

These arguments give rise to a consensus, which I strongly support, that we must get our troops out of Haiti as quickly as possible without jeopardizing their safety. In addition to looking ahead, we must look back, to ask how the US, the world's ``sole superpower,'' became locked in a battle of wills with dictators of the poorest nation in the hemisphere. We must learn the lessons of this crisis so it is not repeated.

In my view, the Haiti debacle has taught us four primary lessons.

First, we must define our true interests and priorities. Our long-term security and the stability of the post-cold-war era are not at stake in Haiti. They are at stake in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Korea, and even Bosnia.

Second, and more specifically, we must decide where the promotion of democracy ranks among our national interests, and what we will do to promote that goal. Democracy is a complex method of government that evolves only gradually even in the best circumstances. It cannot be imposed. In most cases, we should discard armed intervention and devise other strategies to promote democracy, such as using economic and political contacts to encourage change (as in China and Vietnam) and providing direct aid to new democracies (as in Russia and Eastern Europe).

Third, we need to reassess the value and implications of economic and political sanctions. The lessons of Desert Storm, Bosnia, North Korea, and Haiti are clear: Sanctions rarely influence dictators, because they can insulate their regime from the effects of those sanctions. Sanctions do not settle issues as much as postpone a settlement and create the need for more dramatic steps later, such as military action. Before applying sanctions, we must understand where they will lead - especially in Korea, where we have repeatedly threatened economic sanctions if the North does not abandon its nuclear program.

Fourth, we need a peacekeeping and nation-building alternative to US troops. Humanitarian and peacekeeping missions are placing a growing burden on the US military, whose primary job is to be ready to fight wars. What is required is a force to take the place of the US military in humanitarian operations - perhaps a United Nations nation-building force, composed of volunteers from UN member-states and funded primarily by emerging world powers like Germany, Japan, and China. The force would maintain order, feed and care for impoverished people, and begin rebuilding infrastructure.

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Our intervention in Somalia taught these same lessons, but we refused to learn them. In Haiti, we may soon rediscover the perils of interventionism in the absence of clear interests. If, as in Somalia, a brutal warlord in Haiti kills a dozen American soldiers and compels our withdrawal, what will the world learn about American power and determination? What conclusions will potential aggressors draw about our resolve?

We are playing a dangerous game in these far-off places. There is little to be gained if we succeed, but a great deal to be lost if we fail. It is time to focus on our real priorities and stop playing Russian roulette with our national power.

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