Following the earthquake in Haiti and the invasion of Iraq, U.S. policymakers turned to America’s traditional sources of strength to reconstruct these countries. They deployed the private sector, the military and huge amounts of money. In both cases, relying on these strengths simply hasn’t worked.
The failures of U.S. efforts to reconstruct Iraq have been well documented, and the recent upsurge in violence speaks for itself. Despite areas of progress in Haiti since the earthquake, the U.S. recovery effort there has in many ways been a similar fiasco.
Last month, on the fourth anniversary of the devastating Haitian earthquake, roughly one out of every six people in Port-au-Prince still slept in a tent camp. The country remains poor; its place on the UN development index has fallen by 16 countries since the earthquake. Despite Bill Clinton’s call to “build Haiti back better,” both Haiti and Iraq show the limits of what the United States can accomplish with its customary methods.
The most overreaching application of American power in these two countries has been the unrestrained use of the U.S. private sector. In Haiti, 48 percent of USAID funds following the earthquake went to contracts for U.S. for-profit companies. Granted, many Haitians institutions were literally flattened by the quake, but a 2013 USAID study showed that Haitian NGOs had received less than 1 percent of aid.
As with the reconstruction in Iraq, the billions designated for recovery in Haiti haven’t been spent transparently. In December, the House of Representatives passed a bill authored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee that would require a comprehensive report on spending in Haiti. Barbara Lee’s role may sound familiar: she also fought to uncover murky spending in Iraq.
The United States relied on another hallmark of its strength, the military, in Iraq. Surprisingly, it also did in Haiti. In its immediate response to the quake, the United States diverted about a third of funds meant for earthquake relief to pay for the temporary U.S. military presence. The troops soon left Haiti, but the United States has continued to help finance U.N. peacekeeping troops in the country.
In both countries the United States also leaned on a more sinister source of strength: it has put pressure on governments that have dubious legitimacy. Since 2011 the United States has partnered with a government in Haiti that depends on U.S. financial support and that only 16.7 percent of the population voted to elect. In Iraq, the United States literally wrote the country’s constitution following the invasion.
During the Cold War, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned that the United States was hubristically ignoring its fundamental limitations. He warned that America wasn’t as innocent as it wanted to believe, and that it had overstepped what it could accomplish with its power.
As humanitarian aid leaves Haiti despite continued need, it seems we’re seeing a twenty-first century iteration of Niebuhr’s fears. These reconstructions have exposed the limits of U.S. power, and the United States has by no means been innocent saviors for these two countries. In addition to the military occupations of Iraq and Haiti, the United States has enacted embargoes, overseen transitions of power and transformed the economies of both countries with massive amounts of humanitarian aid. U.S. agricultural subsidies have also had huge and detrimental effects on Haiti.
A form of American exceptionalism contributes to the pattern of rushing from crisis to crisis while brandishing power. This conception of the United States includes a willfulness to ignore uncomfortable questions about how U.S. history and policies fit into these crises. Instead, this American exceptionalism clings to a resolute belief that what this country is doing is right and a confidence in this country’s strengths.
As Niebuhr suggested, history has made it so that the United States has an obligation to help other countries. But Niebuhr, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, also called for humility. He cautioned, “We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the ‘happiness of mankind’ as its promise.”
If the United States thinks of itself only as a benevolent rescuer with an exceptional private sector and military, the pattern of Iraqs and Haitis will continue. The question of how the United States responds to its obligation to address humanitarian crises is bound up in how the United States sees itself.