WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s promise to build a new Haiti out of the ruins of the earthquake could prove politically risky if the United States finds itself in a losing battle to rebuild the impoverished nation.
Obama has acted swiftly to mobilize emergency supplies to Haiti, deploying U.S. military personnel and aid officials from USAID to the frontline of the earthquake damage, and promising Haitians they will not be forsaken.
Already dealing with two wars and a foreign policy agenda brimming with challenges, Obama faces a double-edged sword in grappling with the Haiti earthquake and its long-term challenges of rebuilding a country already crippled by poverty.
He risks criticism if relief efforts falter, while at the same time he could draw fire if he is perceived as neglecting U.S. domestic priorities in an election year.
At this juncture, Obama has clearly decided that his administration must throw itself into helping Haiti, telling Cabinet officers they should consider Haiti a top priority.
“I want the people of Haiti to know that we will do what it takes to save lives and to help them get back on their feet,” he said on Friday.
Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Haiti is not at war but has long suffered from political instability, rebellions, violent crime and corruption as well as floods and hurricanes that have required international aid.
To be successful, analysts say, Obama and the rest of the international community will have to commit to long-term efforts to rebuild Haiti’s institutions and its economy. Such commitment will require nation-building, staying power and resources.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a visit to Haiti on Saturday the earthquake was an opportunity to rebuild properly.
She said the goal should be “not just taking a building that’s half-demolished and trying to patch it together, but thinking about what should this whole street look like, what should this neighbourhood look like?
“And that, of course, is what the Haitians are asking the international community to help them do,” she said.
Haiti has been a challenge for American policymakers, with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide providing a glaring example.
President Bill Clinton led an effort that restored democracy from military rule in 1994, allowing Aristide to retake power after a coup, but then he was tossed out again in 2004 in a rebellion and accused the United States of helping in his “kidnapping.”
To Clinton, who is also U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, the task ahead is not just restoring the country but building a whole new one.
“We need to start thinking soon, like in the next few days, about how we are going to provide for a long-term living space for the people in a city that looks like a nuclear bomb hit it,” he said.
“Everybody that has seriously followed Haiti for a long time believed Haiti had the best chance in our lifetime to break the chains of its past, to build a true and modern state,” he said, adding: “I won’t feel successful if all we do is get it back to where they were the day before the earthquake came.”
David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, recalls that Washington ignored evidence that Aristide was tied up in crime and human rights abuses because it wanted to stop Haitians flooding into the United States. It was also so invested in him that the U.S. image became tangled in his.
Washington did not address Haiti’s real problem and ensure that Aristide was doing as promised, he said.
Haiti again is in chaos, its government and economy in tatters, and Haitians are more desperate than ever.
“This could be a foreign policy Katrina for Obama,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank.
Birns said already there were negative headlines coming out of Haiti because aid is flowing too slowly.
“The Obama administration cannot allow itself to be tarnished by the kind of headlines that Bush was getting because of Katrina,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, editing by Philip Barbara