In a commentary on Jan. 19 on the role of the US in relief efforts in quake-devastated Haiti, the Chinese-language United Daily News went on the offensive on what it claimed were signs of US imperialistic machinations in the impoverished country.
The opening sets the tone for the article: “[A]n international dispute broke out as the Haitian International Airport in Port-au-Prince has been put under the control of the US Armed Forces and the US has prioritized the evacuation of its own citizens,” UDN wrote. “Rescue airplanes from around the world have even been refused clearance to land. According to a foreign news report, France has lodged a formal protest to the US Department of State.”
It continues: “The US acting as the world’s sole superpower is nothing new. Given Haiti’s proximity to the US, Washington’s bossy attitude is also no surprise. [US] President [Barack] Obama promptly pledged a donation of US$100 million in relief assistance after the earthquake struck. No other country can match such an enormous donation. However, the US Air Force putting the Haitian airport under its virtual control is a unilateral act too aggressive in the eyes of other nations.”
“The US extends its influence into other countries using not only its military might and economic strengths, but also its pervasive media network. This time, CNN conducted a ‘Quick Vote’ on its website, asking whether the US should accept Haitian immigrants in the earthquake’s aftermath,” it wrote.
The article then incongruously ties US behavior in Haiti and CNN polls with Taiwan: “CNN had also conducted a ‘Quick Vote’ while reporting on the disaster in Taiwan in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot last August. CNN asked its viewers, ‘Should Taiwan’s leader step down over the slow rescue and relief efforts?’ Such push polling caused quite a stir among the local media in Taiwan when all viewers pointed their fingers at the [President] Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九] administration.”
“However, CNN represents the view of the US, and it has indeed caused a lot of trouble by trying to play a leading role in shaping people’s worldviews […] In the past, China was disliked by Western countries just because its national designation, the Middle Kingdom, implied that it was ‘the center of the world.’ Now looking at what the US has been doing in Haiti, the US has seemingly come to regard itself as the true ‘Middle Kingdom,’” it wrote.
Nowhere in the commentary does the author ask who could, or should, ensure security and order in Haiti, a country with a long history of political instability and warlordism. The only other military presence in the country with enough knowledge of the place to make a difference in ensuring the safety of humanitarian delivery is Canada, which is already overstretched in Afghanistan and could not deploy anything nearly as sizable — and as rapidly — as the US. No country in the region, not even the Chinese UN contingent, has the means to do this, period.
Was the world supposed to stand by, out of political politeness, while things fell apart in Haiti? Whoever wrote the commentary clearly had no understanding whatsoever of Haiti’s domestic situation, history, and the need for Civilian-Military cooperation (CIMIC) during humanitarian emergencies (if one country has experience in and has encouraged CIMIC in recent years, it is the US)
The author chose to look at the deployment through the prism of politics rather than as necessary action that undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
The US was a natural leader to deal with the aftermath of this catastrophe, and it has substantial experience operating in the ever-unstable Haiti that goes back to at least former US president George H.W. Bush. Amid growing political instability in Port-au-Prince, in September 1994 then-president Bill Clinton ordered the launch of Operation Uphold Democracy, while the UN Security Council passed Resolution 940, which “under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, authorize[d] Member States to form a multinational force under unified command and control and ... to use all necessary means [including force] to facilitate the departure from Haiti of the military leadership … and to establish and maintain a secure and stable environment that will permit implementation of the Governors Island Agreement.”
What prompted the US into action then was not imperial designs on the Western hemisphere’s poorest country, but rather fear of domestic instability and a humanitarian crisis as thousands of Haitian boat people sought refuge in the US.
Between October 1991 (a month after president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown by a military coup) and June 1992, a total of 36,594 Haitian refugees were intercepted (under a program initiated by former US president Ronald Reagan) by US special forces as they attempted to flee their country and seek asylum in the US. Between 1994 (when Aristide returned in office) and 1995, a total of 21,638 Haitians were relocated to camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and fed, housed and clothed under the US-led Operation Sea Signal.
Then, after the November 2000 elections, which the Haitian opposition boycotted, US and other international forces mandated by the UN once again were deployed to ensure stability, and the situation simmered until 2004, when a rebellion, which resulted in numerous deaths, forced Aristide to once again flee the country and brought President Andre Preval back to power (he served as president from 1996 until 2000). Violence continued, however, which once again created the need for UN peacekeepers and foreign police forces.
Given all this, added to the fact that existing socio-political pressures were bound to be exacerbated by the collapse of the central government following the earthquake, accusing the US of seeing itself as the Middle Kingdom, as the piece argues, is invidious.
Discussing the situation in Haiti, Taiwanese rescue teams have said that the situation there is “logistical chaos” — hence the need for foreign troops to support aid efforts and ensure that deliveries of medical and humanitarian aid are not slowed down — or even seized — by criminal gangs. As past humanitarian crises like Somalia have shown us, the participation of the military, though perhaps not always welcome by the people in need and humanitarian workers, is often a necessary evil. Such was the case in Haiti.
As for denying some aircraft to land at the airport in Port-au-Prince, many reports show that the airport is far too small to accommodate the sudden increase in traffic, and many countries (not just France) have had to reroute their deliveries to neighboring Dominican Republic, whence humanitarian goods are transported by land across the border. Unlike what UDN alleges, there was no evil plot by the US military to seize the airport.
The article’s criticism of the US prioritizing the evacuation of Americans in Haiti is also unfair. It is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safe passage of their citizens in emergencies. France did that in Rwanda in 1994, for example, just as close to 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were about to be exterminated, and many countries did the same when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006.
The parallel with CNN polls, meanwhile, is just risible. Since when does CNN represent “the view of the US,” as the piece argues? At best, CNN represents “a view” among a plurality of contending views. It is doubtful, as well, that Haitians, who are struggling to rescue (or bury) loves ones and rebuild their lives, sit down at night to have their minds “poisoned” by CNN propaganda, which is what the commentary is implying.
This commentary is strident anti-Americanism of the type that conservative Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members, as well as Beijing, will likely exploit to widen the rift between Taipei and Washington. It should be noted that the English version of the commentary, which sounds ominously like something that would appear in the Beijing-controlled People’s Daily, was carried on the official KMT Web site.
J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.
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