Learning from the foreshocks of the Haiti disaster

The disaster in Haiti did not occur yesterday.

While the nation's latest tragedy was triggered by yesterday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake, its real roots were not 10 kilometers beneath the earth's surface as seismologists concluded. Rather, they were in two centuries of misfortune that have plagued the country and most heart-breakingly in the particular failures of the international community and the country's leaders to help the country during the most recent decade and half -- a period when real hope backed with real money seemed to bloom and then, just as quickly, fade.

It was the crushing poverty in the hemisphere's poorest nation that resulted in Port-au-Prince being a city of ramshackle homes of unreinforced concrete or worse, shanties assembled of odd-shaped bits of rusty, corrugated metal, scrap wood, cardboard and old packing crates. It was decades of neglect that made rebar an unaffordable luxury for virtually all on the island or that left communications, power and water systems so underdeveloped that even prior to the earthquake they were operating at what even other poor nations would consider crisis levels.

While it would have been impossible to know precisely when an earthquake of this magnitude would hit or that when it did it would hit so close to this hemisphere's most fragile city, it was known that such a calamity was possible, and not only by seismologists. We have watched repeatedly as hurricanes have battered Haiti and left it staggered because just a few hundred miles away from the richest country on earth was one so deprived that it was ill-equipped even for the predictable weather that came with so many autumns.

We knew all this and yet with every failure to act or to follow through on a good intention, we assured yesterday's outcomes.

In all its benighted history, perhaps Haiti's greatest moment of hope since its independence came just a decade and a half ago. Back then, America finally took interest in its near neighbor as a consequence of a political crisis that, thanks in part to our intervention, resulted in the departure of a dictator whose family had oppressed and raped the island and his replacement by a quiet priest who was embraced by many in the United States as our hemisphere's Mandela. As it turned out, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hardly the saint that Hollywood stars and misty-eyed journalists had seen him to be. 

But we in the Clinton administration did not know that back then -- or at least many did not. We saw his restoration to the country as possibly the latest in the wave of hope-inspiring political upheavals that marked the end of the eighties and the early nineties. We committed thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the country to help give it a new chance. We offered a window of opportunity to tap into real financial resources from us and from the international community. We sent in AID and the Army Corps of Engineers. We trained police and built schools.  

I was given the assignment of helping lead the inter-agency effort tasked with assisting Haiti's economic recovery. We brought a trade mission of business leaders to consider investment opportunities in Haiti ... though there were very few. We tried to identify projects of particular promise...ones that might bring phone service to the 70,000 villages that lacked it or electricity or water to the millions who risked life and limb stealing power from exposed wires or drinking water that was less than pure. 

But we made serious errors. The first was misreading Aristide. This was the result of an intelligence failure as serious as any in the news in the past few decades. Many in our own intel community knew he was a bad guy, affiliated with bad guys, not a good ally. But top policymakers ignored the intel, even firing folks who had the temerity to tell the truth. Later, we made the mistake of demanding Aristide leave at the end of the term of office he had largely not been able to serve due to his exile ... which may have seemed logical at the time but resulted in his effectively become the opposition to his own party from the moment he left office so he would have a chance to run again for office against his own closest political allies a few years hence.

The political turmoil associated with all this left us focused on process and uneasy about fully dispersing the aid that was committed to the country. Further, the country lacked what is commonly called absorptive capacity, the ability to actually take and productively use all we were offering. The bureaucracy was weak. Some was corrupt. Helping Haiti was hard to do.

International interest waned ... although to the credit of the United Nations, they remained engaged in a way that put many of their dedicated workers at great risk yesterday.  But over time, due to our naiveté and the fecklessness of Haitian political leaders the energy behind recovery efforts nonetheless ebbed and with terror and economic crises claiming center stage, the United States lost the political will to assist the struggling country. Good intentions and a pregnant moment were overtaken by events ... and in a way, that's when yesterday's tragedy began. With every dollar withheld, with every program withdrawn, with every aid worker shifted to a different front in a more politically pressing development initiative, somebody's death was foretold.

This is certainly not to lay blame at the feet of those who sought to help but who could not due to shifting political winds. There was real care for Haiti among many of those atop the Clinton team ... beginning with the president himself who remains deeply involved there to this day. Rather, it is to note that the tragedy of the missed opportunity of the '90s seem much more poignant today, almost unbearably so.

Thousands are dead, perhaps many times that. But it is not solely or even, I would argue, primarily due to an act of God. It is due to the callous neglect of neighbors who were content to live with one of the world's poorest countries at the doorstep of the world's richest. (And, it must be said, to the failures of local political leaders.)  It is due to political calculations that resulted in winding down U.S. efforts there and our choice to spend in a couple of weeks in Iraq or Afghanistan what it would have taken to lift this needy neighbor up ... and save countless lives. It is due to the fact that too much of what we spend is for relief rather than for preparedness. In any event, it seems clear that if you leave a ramshackle city of 2 million on a fault line while the knowledge and the means to shore it up exist at your disposal and you are complicit in whatever follows.

The State Department and the White House are in the midst of seriously rethinking how we approach aid and development matters. Haiti should be a case study in how the best of intentions can go awry and of the incalculable costs of letting conflicts and catastrophes set our priorities for us. (The tsunami or regular flooding in places like Bangladesh offer similar examples.) In particular, we need to carefully identify those places internationally that are weakest and most vulnerable and undertake to lead an international initiative to systematically and aggressively invest in crisis prevention...including promulgating international building and other planning standards and helping to provide the financial and technical means to achieve them.

Mundane sounding maybe. But the urgency is clear.  Because Haiti today well illustrates that we can almost always do more to prevent or manage the foreshocks of crises than their aftershocks.


David Rothkopf

How Obama saved Christmas and the 7 stories we should be watching

U.S. national security is too important to be left to foreign policy specialists, the media or politicians. These are the clear lessons of the Post-Underpants Bomber Era. 

Before Christmas and the disturbing revelations of a man setting his balls on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit (rendering himself only slightly more uncomfortable than those flying economy class), there was at least a feeling that America was regaining her senses following the 8 hysterical years of the so-called War on Terror

But within hours of the bungled terror attempt, we saw once again America's true vulnerabilities. And while they are linked to intelligence failures, it is not the ones on which the media and the president's political opponents have focused that are most salient.

Obama's reaction to the junkbomber incident was precisely right and just what you want from a leader: Dispassionate, thoughtful, and calculated. He gave his team the time to assess the threat, the breaches and the right next steps to take. At least one person in the United States, Barack Obama, seemed to recognize that the objective of terrorism is to promote terror and sought to defuse that effort by handling the threat with the proportionality and common sense that has long been missing from U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

But almost immediately, the foreign policy establishment -- acting with the acuity and purity of motives of Tila Tequila squeezing a few extra minutes of undeserved fame out of the untimely death of her "fiancé" Casey Johnson -- whipped itself up into a critical lather. Why? Because it was good for America or because it was in their own self-interest?

I'll leave you to work that out on your own, but here are a few clues:

First, we have seen very few such attempted attacks carried to the stage of that of the underpants bomber in the last decade. Second, we have been successful in foiling many such attacks -- successes for which those responsible get little credit. Third, the attempt revealed as much about the genuine and enduring weaknesses of even terrorists affiliated with major league terror operations like al Qaeda as it did about our own counter-terror efforts. Fourth, terrorism by definition is only successful if it produces "terror" -- the kind of hysterical over-reaction we are once again seeing -- yet this fact does not seem to have resulted in very many critics toning down their hysteria or shrillness. (The Republican Party has the collective cool on these matters of Prissy helping to birth Melanie's baby in Gone With the Wind. As for the media, given that the "news" networks probably devoted more live news coverage to the balloon boy hoax than were devoted to say, the invasion of Normandy, you recognize that they are actually in the business of emotional over-reaction. In fact, their constant refrain that every event is an earth-shattering pinnacle of human experience that could well be the biggest thing they have ever seen suggests they have more in common with folks in say, Ashley Dupre's line of work than that of, say, a journalist.)

Most important, however, is that within days of what may go down on record as the world's first and last attempt at plastic explosive-assisted self-circumcision, news stories kept popping up that underscored the fact that the terror attack paled in significance for those concerned with America's future to other concurrent global developments. To begin with, the intelligence failures involved were not even the biggest problem of the week for the intelligence community given the devastating blow to some of our most senior field operatives in Afghanistan. 

But the biggest threats to U.S. leadership and security ... to our very ability to protect ourselves at home and abroad ... manifested themselves in other stories that have simply not gotten sufficient attention among the accusations and inflammations of the holiday season terror frenzy. Like unemployment staying at 10 percent. Or, over the weekend, like China passing Germany as the world's largest exporter. Or like the fact that our impending health care bill will still not actually fix the financial threats to our system posed by grotesquely under-funded health care liabilities. Or like the fact that the world is far away from solving the biggest security problems it faces from stabilizing Pakistan to stopping Iran's nuclear program (and thus the WMD proliferation that poses the one great terror threat) to reversing climate change or addressing resource disparities that will trigger many of the wars of the century ahead. (It is worth noting that for America today ... the greatest threats to the nation's future well-being don't involve things that explode ... always the favored topic of foreign policy elites ... but rather things that are imploding ... like our economy, about which most big time foreign policy specialists haven't  a clue.)

If one terrorist can in one failed attempt distract America from addressing priorities and will almost certainly lead to further billions and billions being misdirected to the global whackamole game of trying to snuff out the geopolitical pipsqueaks who lead international terror networks it explains more about why terrorists will keep trying than any in-depth analysis of the conditions on the ground in terror-prone regions. 

Thus, what this incident really reminds us is, terrorists only have the power we give them. And that the emotional, the shrill, the over-the-top, the self-promoters, the hyper-political, and the other tummlers responsible for the inside-the-beltway mob mentality are as complicit in the spread of terror as those who are too soft on it. If the president's rhetoric was slightly too weak for some tastes, he erred in the direction that also weakens our enemies rather than, as did his most vocal critics, the direction that turns operational failures like the one on Christmas Day into strategic successes for the bad guys.

P.S. I'd like to add that not only is the over-the-top nature of the terrorism debate of late done damage to U.S. interests, the appropriate response is not only not more spending, more programs, more rules ... but that complimenting the moderate response would actually be improvements to our anti-terror efforts all of which would actually be in the direction of narrowing, focusing and spending less. For example, want to improve Intel sharing? Let's start with getting rid of the Directorate of National Intelligence, a legacy of Bush's big government response to 9/11, that amounts to precisely the opposite of what we need: an additional layer of thousands of bureaucrats who actually do not enhance (apparently) our analytical capacity and undoubtedly reduce communications efficiency. The Central Intelligence Agency was created to do all the coordinating the DNI does and easily could do it again if sufficiently empowered? Want another step to improve our intel sharing? How about reducing and eliminating many of the unnecessary levels of information classification that make it impossible for policy makers to actually have access to all the information they need to make decisions? Want another? Heed the advice of former advisor to Dwight Eisenhower General Andrew Goodpaster, who laughed to me during our last intel "crisis" after 9/11 that Eisenhower would have had no patience with it because he knew -- from bitter experience during World War II -- that intelligence can be useful but expectations must be set at the right level. It was always an imperfect tool and one that could not be perfected. Want another? Let's get out of the unwinnable mess in Afghanistan and focus some of those resources on directly targeting terrorists, some on better tools for early warning and the rest on the domestic needs that are actually essential to maintaining long-term U.S. strength.  I could go on. But it is clear ... when it comes to responding to terror, the lesson of the past decade is that we need to think a lot harder about proportionality and the unintended consequences of our understandable horror and outrage.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images