A Message for U.S. Haiti Critics: Think First

File this one under the heading, "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished."

While rescue teams continue to deal with the enormous challenge of bringing aid to Haiti, some outsiders have faulted the United States for making a bad situation even worse. There also are complaints that the U.S. is more concerned with imposing a form of "disaster capitalism" on Haiti than in helping the survivors rebuild their lives.

You knew it was going to reach this point, though I have to confess astonishment at how quickly the second-guessers concluded this was turning into a rerun of The Ugly American.

Writing in Britain's Guardian, Seumas Milne contrasts the laudatory job turned in by "Welsh firefighters and Cuban doctors" who "have been getting on with the job of saving lives" with the well, less laudatory role of the 82nd Airborne Division, which he notes "was busy parachuting into the ruins of Haiti's presidential palace."

"Most scandalously," he writes, "U.S. commanders have repeatedly turned away flights bringing medical equipment and emergency supplies from organizations such as the World Food Programme and Médecins Sans Frontières, in order to give priority to landing troops. Despite the remarkable patience and solidarity on the streets and the relatively small scale of looting, the aim is said to be to ensure security and avoid "another Somalia" – a reference to the US military's "Black Hawk Down" humiliation in 1993. It's an approach that certainly chimes with well-established traditions of keeping Haiti under control."


With all due respect to the Welsh and Cuban volunteers who, obviously, deserve kudos for their humanitarian work, Milne's paint-by-the-numbers portrayal of sinister U.S. intention in Haiti misstates the mission as well as the intention behind it. This isn't Iraq and it isn't Afghanistan. There's no disagreement about the objective, Milne's carping, notwithstanding. The 82nd Airborne, which got sent in to establish rudimentary order on the ground, moved into a vacuum left by the quake with the objective of getting the flow of supplies moving into the disaster area. It's hard getting worked up if some of their decisions offended the sensibilities of more tender souls tut-tutting from the safety and comfort of their offices thousand of miles away.

Milne and others do accurately note the U.S. has a bad history with Haiti. (For too many years, we supported one of the most repressive regimes in the Western Hemisphere.) But then they fly off into the impenetrable world of dark conspiracy to press the argument that corporate interests and their government lackeys are out to exploit crises like Haiti in order to push "predatory neoliberal policies."

Time to sit down with a Darvon and a cherry Coke.

You can cherry pick the historical record to support that argument in other theatres where U.S. gunboat diplomacy has resulted in less-enlightened foreign policy decisions. Not here. If Haiti offers a would-be imperialist strategic or mineral advantage these days, please enlighten me about it.

In the last week, the French, the Italians and the Brazilians have complained about the U.S. refusal to allow aid planes to land. France's Cooperation Minister - they have a Cooperation Minister? even mused that international aid efforts were supposed to be helping Haiti, not "occupying" it. That might have been the final straw for Hillary Clinton, who held a Town Hall meeting with State Department personnel on Tuesday.

"Some of the international press either misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued what was a civilian and military response, both of them necessary in order to be able to deliver aid to the Haitians who desperately needed it," she said. "I have absolutely no argument with anyone launching a legitimate criticism against our country," she said. "I think we can learn from that, and we are foolish if we keep our head in the sand and pretend that we can't."

She's Secretary of State and her job is to be a diplomat. In this case, though, too bad she didn't just tell the Haiti critics to take a hike.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.