The humanitarian myth

By Richard Seymour

Within days of Haiti suffering an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, the U.S. government had sent thousands of 82nd Airborne troops and Marines, alongside the super-carrier USS Carl Vinson.

By this Sunday, a total of more than 20,000 U.S. troops were scheduled to be operating in Haiti, both on land and in the surrounding seas. “We are there for the long term,” explained Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The justification for sending troops is that there is a “security” crisis, which soldiers have to deal with in order to facilitate the distribution of aid.

The situation was and remains a needful one. The Haitian interior minister estimates that as many as 200,000 may have died as a result of the quake, and 2 million have been left homeless. Potable water is extremely scarce, and was so even before the quake. Only half a million have found the makeshift camps that provide some food and water, but have such poor sanitation that they are fostering diarrhea. Clinics are overwhelmed by the injured survivors, estimated to number a quarter of a million.

Since the arrival of the troops, however, several aid missions have been prevented from arriving at the airport in Port-au-Prince, that the U.S. has commandeered. France and Caribbean Community have both made their complaints public, as has Médecins Sans Frontières on five separate occasions. UN World Food Program flights were also turned away on two consecutive days. Benoit Leduc, MSF’s operations manager in Port-au-Prince, complained that U.S. military flights were being prioritized over aid flights. Now, U.S. ships have encircled Haiti in order to prevent refugees escaping and fleeing to the United States.


In effect, the U.S. has staged an invasion of Haiti, under the pretext of providing security for humanitarian aid, and in doing so has prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid. With Haitians in a desperate condition, and the UN-supervised government in dire straits, Washington has sent the International Monetary Fund to offer a $100 million loan, on the proviso that public wages be frozen.

The “security” operation, meanwhile, proceeds apace. As well as U.S. troops, thousands more UN police have been sent to Haiti. Already, UN troops, alongside the Haitian police, have been responsible for several killings, as they have opened fire on starving earthquake survivors who dared to try to retrieve the means of survival from shops and other locations. The US has also insisted that the Haitian government pass an emergency decree authorizing curfews and martial law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the decree “would give the government an enormous amount of authority, which in practice they would delegate to us.”

This process has been facilitated by a flood of alarmist and often racist reporting about “mobs,” “looters” and “gangs” causing a “security crisis.” A “security crisis” validates a repressive response.

The Haitian police have justified their brutal massacres of “looters”–those securing their right to life in desperate circumstances–by telling the media that thousands of prisoners have escaped from the country’s jails, and are running amok, posing a threat to vulnerable citizens. Police have been attempting to whip up fear among earthquake survivors, organising them into vigilantes to attack the escaped prisoners. However, as many as 80 percent of Haiti’s prisoners have never been charged with a crime. “Gangs”–in the vernacular of Washington, the White House press corps and Haiti’s business lobby, the Group of 184–happens to be a synonym for Lavalas activists.


The paternalistic assumptions behind the calls for ‘humanitarian intervention’ have sometimes been starkly expressed. Thus, the conservative columnist Eric Margolis lauds the history of American colonial rule in Haiti: “[T]he U.S. occupation is looked back on by many Haitians as their “golden age.” The Marine Corps proved a fair, efficient, honest administrator and builder. This era was the only time when things worked in Haiti.”

Purporting to oppose imperialism, Margolis insists that “genuine humanitarian intervention” is “different,” and calls for Haiti to be “temporarily administered by a great power like the U.S. or France.” He writes: “U.S. administration of Haiti may be necessary and the only recourse for this benighted nation that cannot seem to govern itself.”

Similarly, right-wing New York Times columnist David Brooks, decrying the supposed “progress-resistant cultural influences” that he maintains holds Haiti back, calls for the U.S. to “promote locally-led paternalism.” “We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” he complains. “But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

To overcome this cultural handicap, Brooks recommends finding gurus who would promote a culture of achievement and responsibility–as opposed to the irresponsible, chaotic, voodoo-ridden culture that he identifies as Haiti’s major problem.

It is unnecessary to dignify such caricatures by considering them as empirical hypotheses. However, it should be noted that neither author gives the slightest consideration to the persistent efforts of the U.S. government to frustrate the rise of popular, democratic movements such as Lavalas, nor to the IMF-imposed programs which saw real wages fall by 50 percent between 1980 and 1990, and which resulted in overpopulated slums and a failing rural economy.

Nor do they acknowledge the brutality of the UN occupation. While Margolis acknowledges that America’s colonial rule was “sometimes brutal,” his understatement is verging on euphemism when he omits to discuss the killing of 15,000 people as Haiti’s rebels, known as Cacos, were suppressed.

Nor does he mention the humiliating system of forced labor that was imposed on Haitians under U.S. rule, or the fact that the gendarmerie built up under U.S. occupation became the organized basis for later dictatorships that would blight Haiti. In short, both writers bring to bear astonishingly little understanding of the country whose fate they are discussing so cavalierly.

However, what is of interest in these caricatures is the genus of imperial ideology that they relate to. Margolis is an old-school conservative (he describes himself as an Eisenhower Republican). He recalls in his phrases the manifest-destinarianism of William McKinley, who argued that the conquest and colonization of the Philippines was justified since Filipinos “were unfit for self-government.”

In the imperial language of the U.S. and Europe in this period, self-government was conceived of either as a cultural state that only white people had achieved, or as a technology that only white people could use. Woodrow Wilson, the invader of Haiti, explained that the Philippines could not be given self-government by the United States, since “it is a form of character and not a form of constitution.” Self-government is a cultural state attained after a period of discipline that “gives people self-possession, self-master, the habit of order.”

For Wilson, only the “nobler races”–namely Europeans and white Americans–had achieved that state. Margolis would not be so explicitly racist, but his subtext is not the less subtle for that.

Brooks, though, is a neoconservative. As such, he brings to bear that tradition’s paternalism, its concern with developing good patriarchal families, and particularly its culturalist reading of social institutions.

In this view, government and other institutions reflect an accumulation of cultural practices that have survived through generations. Capitalism and liberal democracy are thus the result of cultural influences such as Judeo-Christian values. The ability to govern oneself as a society is also said to be a result of cultural attributes that are generally found to be lacking in America’s opponents. These discrete cultures do not necessarily correspond to older notions of ‘race’, but they perform an analogous function in permitting privileged U.S. commentators to applaud the conquest of other societies.

Thus, at the height of the Vietnam War, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, argued that it was correct for the U.S. to support a right-wing dictatorship since “South Vietnam, like South Korea, is barely capable of decent self-government under the very best of conditions.” Like the Black families that Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously diagnosed as suffering from a “tangle of pathologies,” these people lacked the exquisite cultural refinements that made white Americans so successful.

These are exceptionally explicit commentaries. Most of those lauding American actions are unlikely to be as cynical or brazen as Brooks and Margolis. Yet when 20,000 U.S. troops arrive in a wrecked island country, and begin obstructing aid and beefing up “security” while people die in the wreckage of thirst and starvation, only the willfully purblind or those trapped in the assumptions of the “civilizing mission,” could construe it as a “humanitarian intervention.”

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