Sunday, January 17, 2010

Proposed: A Marshall Plan for Haiti

When the seismic catastrophe long predicted for the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden strike-slip fault zone finally occurred at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, the earthquake that followed immediately and the devastation that’s still unfolding revealed other fissures, other fault lines that were almost as long and as old as the deforested ground of Haiti.

Courtesy of the 24/7 professional and social media, we’re discovering the powerfully destructive forces that have been at work in the country for decades now, mostly a crushing poverty that’s made Haiti the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere — and a relative indifference to that poverty on the part of neighbors big and small, notably the United States.

Now the deal’s gone down. Horribly. Initial casualty estimates of 50,000 people killed by the direct temblor or its numerous aftershocks have exploded; at this writing the Haitian government in extremis has estimated the death toll is, conservatively, at least 200,000 — a tally that would make this seismic event one of the worst in history.

It’s one of those tragically available guesstimates, as likely to be right as wrong. But from what we’ve seen on YouTube and the news (and for many following the events in Port-au-Prince right now, YouTube is the news), the scope of the damage, its Brueghel panorama suggest even that estimate may yet be shockingly conservative.

What lays before the United States and any number of ambitious, visionary world partners is to take this profound crisis and forge something like an opportunity. What’s called for is nothing less than a Marshall Plan for the restoration of Haiti.

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Students of the American statecraft preceding that of Colin Powell know the name of George C. Marshall, for many the best U.S. Secretary of State in the 20th century.

Witnessing the stagnation of Western Europe in the first years after the end of World War II, Marshall undertook the European Recovery Program, a broad and sweeping initiative meant to help the economies of 17 European countries with a variety of forms of material and financial assistance. Simply put, the plan that came to bear his name helped put postwar Europe on its feet.

We tend to remember the Marshall Plan mostly because of its almost surgical efficacy, its direct way of channeling relief to the people who needed it most. We tend to remember the Marshall Plan mostly because of its most dramatic and emotionally powerful manifestation: the Berlin airlift, a British-American campaign during which 2.3 million tons of food were ferried into West Berlin by air over 278,000 flights, in defiance of a Russian blockade of land and water routes to that sector of the city divided by the Allies in 1945.

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That kind of direct intervention seems to have become a thing of the past, if there’s no direct provocation for its use. This is the time and place to bring it back. A Marshall-style plan for the recovery of Haiti and its people is precisely the kind of global forward thinking needed today for several reasons.

First, it helps to solidify the cultural and social affinities that already exist between Haiti and the United States. There are more than 2 million Haitian Americans, and longstanding ties of music, style and cuisine make this country a natural partner in reconstruction.

It also gives the United States the opportunity for a necessary nation building in its own backyard. There’s already been a long-established network of NGOs, charities and other grassroots organizations working there for decades. Those groups form the informational infrastructure needed by the United States and its partners to begin the process of building Haitian economic self-sufficiency.

And a concerted effort to help the Haitians help themselves fills the current vacuum: a nation whose police force is scattered, if not dead; whose government is greviously damaged; whose president was left literally homeless by the events of Tuesday afternoon. A country with no functioning government soon discovers any number of bad actors and militant freelancers more than willing to fill that role. With two wars going on on the other side of the planet, at a rough cost of $370 million a day, that’s a vacuum at our doorstep we don’t need.

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The American military is stepping up to the plate in the crisis, with a necessary show of strength. President Obama has pledged an ongoing commitment to Haiti, starting with the $100 million that the United States will inject in the immediate recovery effort. On Sunday he announced the limited callup of reservists to assist in the relief effort.

What’s yet to be seen is the long-term national appetite for this kind of stewardship. We’re a generous nation, but we’re an impatient nation, too. Americans want results; consciously or unconsciously, we tend to measure results by our own accelerated, high-performance yardstick, and when we’re disappointed, it shows.

The national attention span, short at best, will be tested like never before. Previous disasters have seen similar outpourings of generosity, over time that flood slowing to a trickle.

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It’s not like an incidental drift toward cynicism isn’t getting any help. They’re still treating the tens of thousands who need medical care; out of necessity, they’re still bulldozing bodies in the Haitian streets, and the angry old men on the political right have already shown where they stand.

Steve King, a Republican Congressman in the Iowa 5th district, opposed the Obama administration’s temporary reprieve from deportation, and did it in the worst possible terms: “This sounds to me like open borders advocates exercising the Rahm Emanuel axiom: ‘Never let a crisis go to waste,’” King said in an e-mail message to ABC News. “Illegal immigrants from Haiti have no reason to fear deportation but if they are deported, Haiti is in great need of relief workers and many of them could be a big help to their fellow Haitians.”

And talk radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh impugned the administration’s motives. "This [the quake] will play right into Obama's hands," said Limbaugh on on his radio show Wednesday. "He's humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community – both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. This is made to order for them."

"I do believe that everything is political to this president," Limbaugh followed up with an irate caller, repeating himself lest his first comments be misunderstood. "Everything this president sees is a political opportunity, including Haiti, and he will use it to burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion."

“Besides, we've already donated to Haiti," he said. "It's called the U.S. income tax.”

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These are the ruthless ideologues doing what they do best. But there’s every reason to believe that most Americans, most people anywhere for whom a heart is more than a cardiac pump, are rising to the occasion, reacting to this natural holocaust with the shock and compassion that is the base metal of the human experience.

One of the American military spokesmen on the ground in Haiti, presumably someone high enough on the food chain to speak in such lofty terms and make it stick, distilled the short-term mission of the United States. Paraphrasing — “we are here to do as much good as possible and as little evil as possible.”

If that mindset, charitable and tough, pragmatic and generous, can be the guiding principle of the involvement of the United States in this necessary enterprise, there’s a chance — more than a chance — for the nation of Haiti to use its historic resilience and imagination with the financial and material assistance of other nations to begin again, stronger and smarter than before.

And there’s not a chance but the certainty that this country will step through into a better sense of itself, a nation that understands again the ways in which justice, security and empathy are permanently intertwined.

Image credits: Haiti in flames: ITN News. George C. Marshall: © 2010 Nobel Web AB. Haiti devastation: Reuters. Limbaugh: Via MSNBC.

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