Where Democracy Is Greener



The Haitians at Del Rio

Over one weekend, some 15,000 people, mainly Haitians, suddenly appeared at the Mexican border of the US, wanting to come in.  They fled Haiti because Haiti is broken down.  Its resources are meager and mismanaged.  Its political culture is corrupt; its government, dysfunctional.  Its last democratically elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was mysteriously assassinated, possibly by a clique of private outside adventurers.  He left Haitian government in a precarious position, for he had been hollowing out and disabling its already puny civic institutions.  Haiti is a Somalia in the making, where utter lawlessness could follow a decline in stable control.

Extreme weather plagues Haiti.  A colossal earthquake recently shook the country, which has long been the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.  Nothing relieves the people there, despite perennial international efforts, including the infusion of massive amounts of cash, food, and other forms of humanitarian aid.  Haiti is a nation state that doesn’t deliver what its people need.  To an alarming extent, Haiti’s problems are representative of many of the world’s nations, where poor governance, corruption, chronic violence, and extreme weather threaten the safety and survival of citizenry.

In olden times, misery made Haiti a pressure cooker of change.  Its history is as heartbreaking as any country’s.  In the 17th century, the French colonized Haiti.  French masters sent enslaved Africans to work sugar plantations there under pestilential conditions, knowing that the majority would have brief lives.  The terrifying violence and brutality of the slaves’ captivity is poignantly captured in their spiritual art.  Eventually, their misery bore fruit, for, in 1804, the slaves revolted and became self-governing.  They fomented a remarkable revolution, rebuking France and casting off oppression for the sake of personal freedom and political autonomy.  Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s 11.26 million inhabitants today descend from those once-captive slaves.

Now, however, the Haitians can flee rather than remake the oppression and misery besetting them again.  Modern communications and the ease of movement have led to swelling migration around the globe.  It’s hard to create a healthy democracy and the rule of law where they’ve ceased to exist, harder still to build a prosperous economy where the necessary cultural capital has always been wanting.  So, though Haitians already live in a democracy, some are flooding toward where its blessings are in fuller flower, leaving Haiti itself even more hopeless than before.  Because, why flee overland to the US?  Failing as citizens, Haitians want to live in a polity where the living is good.

So they have undertaken a harrowing, roundabout journey across Mexico, over water and mountains, leaving everything familiar to huddle together under the Del Rio International Bridge, which normally admits travelers into the US via south Texas.  Given the abnormal flood of migrants, most of whom have no hope of legal entry, the border crossing at Del Rio has been completely closed.  Journalists report that the Haitians will be flown back to their country at US government expense.

I feel for the Haitians who made this journey.  If I were in their place, I might consider leaving Haiti, too.  The fact that they are from a democratic country, though, and that people all over the world are now fleeing pseudo-democracies where repression, exploitation, and corruption are flourishing, gives me pause.  The tendency of many journalists to depict these hapless citizens as childlike and powerless victims is dangerously patronizing and retrograde.  When should the people of Haiti be regarded as accountable for the terribly low outcomes from their country’s “democratic experiment?”  When will the US get its act together, put aside its vanity, and restore order at the border by promulgating a set of new, Congressionally approved immigration laws?

To be in a reactive position with respect to immigration and border control exposes the “both ways” dithering that is impairing the prestige of the democratic form.  Common sense and realism must temper compassion in crafting a rationale for augmenting the current population mix of the US.  Global instability is increasing, requiring the US to temper boundlessness with a regard for its own political vulnerability.

Human migration is destined to swell, particularly as extreme weather events make barely habitable places like Haiti even more uninhabitable.  The US must meet the new forces driving human migration with something more than ad hoc executive orders, fuzzy feelings, vice-presidential sound-bites, and so-called media “campaigns.”  The circumstances under which non-citizens may enter the US and the procedures they must follow should be clear, universally broadcast, and incontrovertible.  Paradoxically, the firmness with which such boundaries are drawn may redound to the long-term health of other democracies.

Image: A Port-au-Prince neighborhood,
courtesy Alsandro via Wikimedia 
Commons.

 


w-c-osborn

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The First of Two Thoughts on The Day (No War with Iran)

I went to sleep last night worried that we would all be waking up to a war with Iran.  I am so grateful that the administration interpreted Iran’s attack on our bases as a retaliatory gesture that was pointed but at the same time perfunctory. Actually, I don’t have a problem with the president’s formally expressed hard line on Iran, or with the two aims he expressed today: deterring Iran’s expansive militarism and deterring it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

I want to see Donald Trump out of the presidency, but, when I hear him speak about Iran, I agree completely. His remarks today took into account the really desperate internal condition of that country, and he articulated the ultimate and ideal goal of seeing Iran reach a state of peace and prosperity.

The people of Iran have suffered terribly under years of international sanctions and government repression. They want a functioning economy and normal lives. This is why Iran has lately been witnessing widespread popular demonstrations, which the government has had trouble putting down. Internally, Iran is in a terrible position to go to war with any nation, let alone the United States.  The people of Iran want to get rid of the ayatollah and the fundamentalist strictures that the clerics have imposed on the country for decades.

At the same time, I liked Trump’s emphasis on our energy independence, and how that gives us more latitude when it comes to getting out of the Middle East. Interestingly, the desirability of withdrawing US troops from Iraq in some fashion but as soon as is feasible is a point on which Trump and Bernie Sanders agree.

Resisting the drumbeat

I spent the week after the Paris attacks wondering, Why must the US response be military?  France is justified in avenging itself against ISIS, but the United States should be cautious in responding to this particular instance of violent jihad.

When have we heard more hysterical commentary than during this past week, a week of incomplete sentences and excited spluttering?  Ironically, only the President remained calm; only his remarks regarding ISIS’s threat to the US made sense; and, perhaps for that reason, the media and political establishment have excoriated him and deprecated the administration resoundingly.

Meanwhile, a perfect storm is picking up speed in Syria, where a civil war broke out four and a half years ago, in response to a citizens’ uprising against Bashar al-Assad during the multi-national Arab Spring.  I remember seeing an interview with some moderate rebels then: they were dismayed at the US’s failure to help them and predicted that disillusionment would encourage the growth of anti-Western extremism.  And so it has.

Since that ‘simpler’ time, Syria has become the theater where at least three wars are raging simultaneously.  First, there is the increasingly sectarian civil war aimed at deposing the intractable Assad.  Second, a war within a war is being waged, as the stateless guerrilla group ISIS attempts, in Syria and elsewhere, to establish a retrograde caliphate that it justifies in the name of Islamic purity.  Finally, the Syrian war is a proxy war, with numerous other powers overtly or covertly aiding the principal combatants, attempting to further their own interests by investing in the triumph of one or the other side.  The outside players include Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese-based group Hezbollah on the Syrian government’s side, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, the UK, and France on the opposition side.  (For more on the war’s history, see this BBC News summary; also this map of Middle-Eastern involvement at The Maghreb and Orient Courier.)

The opposition has the weaker hand, because its principal aim is to bring down the Assad regime; yet no one can imagine who could bring order to Syria if Assad were gone.  The so-called ‘moderate’ rebels fighting for democracy have long since been overwhelmed by militants from all over the world, and especially by Sunni forces fighting to bring down Assad’s Alawites and attain a theocratic victory.  Westerners who think this war is still primarily about democracy and self-determination have it wrong.  Re-establishing civil order will involve either the installation of a puppet government with a new strongman or a return to the status quo ante bellum.

Tactically, the conflict has morphed into a type of total war that is difficult to categorize, though, sadly, many of its most brutal elements (chemical warfare, the bombing of civilian populations) have occurred in modern wars before.  The tactics of the Islamic State (which of course is a fantastical misnomer, as the force does not constitute a state at all), however, are novel in that they combine Western-oriented terrorism with transnational guerrilla warfare aimed at further creating anarchy in and beyond the territory that ISIS is intent on overtaking.

The New York Times published an excellent graphic feature highlighting how ISIS’s terror activities complement their geographically focused war aims.  Precisely because ISIS is not a state, it wishes to promote anarchy as well as to break up the influence of the West and exorcise the Western narrative that has shaped and justified our involvement in the affairs of many Muslim-populated societies.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the pressure is on the Obama administration to step up the fight against ISIS in Syria, to send ground troops and commit more air and fire power to a multi-sided conflict already fraught with too many antagonistic parties.  The pressure is all the greater given that the presidential race is in full swing.  Republican candidates, eager to talk tough, are vying to out-do one another with fantastical visions of military aggression whose virtues are merely quantitative.

President Obama did a good job last week of reminding everyone that ISIS is not a state but a more amorphous and unconventional enemy.  At a press conference during the G20 summit in Turkey, the president astutely rejected the idea of being further drawn into a conventional war, reminding his listeners that conventional tactics will not work against this unconventional enemy.

We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.

These are killers with fantasies of glory who are very savvy when it comes to social media, and are able to infiltrate the minds of not just Iraqis or Syrians, but disaffected individuals around the world. And when they activate those individuals, those individuals can do a lot of damage. And so we have to take the approach of being rigorous on our counterterrorism efforts, and consistently improve and figure out how we can get more information, how we can infiltrate these networks, how we can reduce their operational space, even as we also try to shrink the amount of territory they control to defeat their narrative.

The gravest threat that ISIS poses to the US is the incitement of terror.  Here’s hoping that Americans can resist the drumbeat and refrain from over-reaching in the Middle East, instead choosing to devote themselves to the twin causes of domestic safety and peace.