Biden administration shows little appetite for Haiti’s troop request

By Michael Crowley, Michael D. Shear and Eric Shmitt

Haiti’s request for U.S. troops to help stabilize the country following the assassination of its president presents a difficult choice for President Joe Biden: send forces to aid a neighbor even as he is trying to pare down America’s military footprint overseas, or refrain and risk allowing the chaos unfolding there to escalate into a refugee crisis.

Thus far, administration officials have expressed caution about any deployment to Haiti, reflecting the fast pace of events since attackers killed President Jovenel Moïse in his home Wednesday and a broader shift in American attitudes toward military interventions as the 20-year war in Afghanistan winds down.

Biden administration officials, while sympathetic to the humanitarian misery unfolding some 700 miles south of Florida and mindful of a potential mass exodus of Haitian refugees like one that occurred in the 1990s, nevertheless show no immediate enthusiasm for sending even a limited U.S. force into the midst of politically based civil strife and disorder.

The administration has said it will send officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to assess how they might help assist the government’s investigation into the murky circumstances of Moïse’s killing.

But Pentagon officials were taken off guard by the Haitian request late Friday. While they said it would be dutifully reviewed, there is little appetite among senior military leaders to dispatch U.S. troops.

“We are aware of the request and are analyzing it,” John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, said in a telephone interview Saturday, noting that the request was broad and did not specify numbers or types of forces needed.

One senior administration official put it more bluntly late Friday: “There are no plans to provide U.S. military assistance at this time.”

For Biden, the prospect of a deployment of U.S. forces amid the chaotic aftermath of the brutal killing runs against his core instinct to consolidate America’s overseas military presence, not expand it. The request from the Haitians came just hours after Biden delivered remarks defending his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year mission that came to be ill-defined and entangled with dysfunctional Afghan politics.

For now, Biden officials are focused on other ways to assist Haiti with its security needs short of military forces. That could include stepped-up training and assistance for Haiti’s police and military provided by the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security.

Whether that can make a real difference is questionable in a country where endemic poverty and corruption have largely proved impervious to billions of dollars in international aid over decades. Haiti is “infested” by gangs, as its ambassador to Washington put it this week. The violence has worsened since Moïse’s assassination, with many residents afraid to leave their homes.

On Saturday, dozens of men, women and children seeking to flee the country packed into a courtyard of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as competing claims to power by the interim prime minister and a group of senators seeking to establish an alternative government remained unresolved.

The sense of chaos has been exacerbated by the continuing mystery over who was behind the attack on Moïse’s residence. Authorities have arrested at least 20 people, most of them Colombian mercenaries, but have not shed much light on the plot. Investigators have summoned four of the president’s chief security officers for questioning next week.

Given the uncertainty over who is leading the country and its already weak institutions, the risk is that conditions will deteriorate further, setting off a mass refugee flight by sea for Florida that would pose a humanitarian and political crisis for Biden — who is already trying to manage a surge of migrants crossing into the United States at the Mexico border.

Biden officials are not insensitive to the plight of Haitians who have struggled for decades to escape poverty, corruption and political dysfunction; many served in the Obama administration when thousands of U.S. troops were dispatched for several months to provide security.

That deployment was considered a success even if it did little to resolve Haiti’s deep-seated problems. But it did run “the risk of mission creep,” according to a 2013 study by the nonpartisan Rand Corp., which said that Haiti would have welcomed the mission “to continue indefinitely” and that it “could easily have evolved” into a longer commitment.

Biden would confront other problems with the deployment of U.S. soldiers. It is one thing to send troops to the aftermath of an epic natural disaster. It is another to step into an environment of political chaos, intrigue and dueling claims to power — not to mention marauding armed gangs. Many Haitians, well aware of their country’s history of colonialism and slavery, already complain that their politics are shaped by mostly white foreign powers.

In 1915, the assassination of a Haitian president led President Woodrow Wilson to direct U.S. Marines to invade the country, beginning a two-decade U.S. occupation and years of unrest.

Another disincentive for Biden is the seemingly vague nature of Haiti’s request, including what it is U.S. troops would be expected to do.

“The best approach in Haiti is for the United States to turn to either the United Nations, the Organization of American States or a coalition of Latin American nations for a stability force,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and a former head of the Pentagon’s Southern Command.

“But going into the island is very unlikely from a military standpoint, especially as we are wrapping up operations in Afghanistan,” he added.

It was under the auspices of the United Nations that the United States sent troops to Somalia in 1992 and Haiti in 1994, when Clinton approved a U.S. force to depose a military junta on the island and restore a democratically elected president.

For decades, the United States has sought to assist Haiti as part of the “Core Group,” an ad hoc collection of ambassadors and envoys from major western nations and international bodies like the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

But multinational missions come with their own risks and political baggage; U.N. peacekeepers based in the country from 2004-17 introduced cholera and were reported to have committed widespread rape and sexual abuse.

At the same time, Biden may also face pressure to act, especially if Haiti’s political and security situation further deteriorates.

Demands for Biden to help Haiti quickly began to build among the small community of Haitian Americans and Haitian refugees living in the United States, including in the politically important state of Florida.

About 1 million Haitians live in the United States, according to 2018 census estimates, many of them having fled earlier periods of violence and instability in their country. In the last decade, about 56,000 Haitians have been living in the United States under a program called Temporary Protected Status, which was first granted in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

One development that would intensify pressure on Biden to act would be if Haitians began fleeing the country in numbers resembling the wave of refugees that headed toward Florida in the early 1990s. President George H.W. Bush detained some refugees at the Guantánamo Bay naval base, drawing liberal outrage, and Clinton later directed the Coast Guard to repatriate Haitians intercepted at sea.

Stavridis said that a Haitian refugee wave could change the Biden administration calculus, adding that the military has developed contingency plans to handle a sudden influx of people.

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