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September 6th, 2005
Unfinished Country
Interview: James Dobbins

August 23, 2005: James Dobbins, former U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti, discusses social, political, and economic development in the struggling country with Anchor, Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: As special envoy for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, James Dobbins has supervised peacekeeping and nation-building operations in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. He is now Director of the International Security and Defense Center at the RAND Corporation. Thank you for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

JAMES DOBBINS: Pleasure to be here.

BILL MOYERS: So, what did you think as you watched that film?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, the film kind of leaves you wondering, as it probably was intended to do what, what’s going to happen, whether they’re going to make it. I think it dramatizes the divisions in Haitian society — the weakness of the state, the difficulties of achieving anything and the basic uncertainty that hangs over this election and the whole future of the country.

BILL MOYERS: The statistics are so mind numbing — the poorest country in the hemisphere, three-quarters of the people living in poverty, the third highest rate of hunger in the world, half the population unable to read and write, the highest rate of AIDS in Latin America. I mean, is this a country, or just one more of history’s basket cases?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, it’s a country, and it’s right on our doorstep and it’s a scandal. But, it’s definitely a society with a strong sense of its own identity. In many ways it’s preserved its culture more than most of the societies of the Caribbean have. It’s been less penetrated by globalism and American popular culture. Haitians are very successful immigrants when they come to the United States.

BILL MOYERS: There are, what, half a million of them here?

JAMES DOBBINS: At least. And, they’re hard working. They’re family oriented. They place a high value on education. They move economically as they stay longer — sort of classic successful immigrants. In their own society, it’s a basket case.

BILL MOYERS: But, given these qualities that you just described, why is it a scandal?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think that the society had been heavily corrupted through really two centuries of gross neglect. It was the second independent country in the Western hemisphere. Its revolution succeeded that of the United States by about 30 years. And yet, the United States refused to recognize it for more than half a century, refused to have any relations with it whatsoever. France imposed a huge indemnity on it for damages caused during the revolution, which bankrupted an already poor society in the beginnings of the 19th century. Even when the United States finally did recognize it and begin to have diplomatic relations, it was often neglected. It’s had occasional brief moments of interest in Washington and in the United States, but they’ve petered out very quickly.

BILL MOYERS: Is it always because it’s a nation of black people? Do you think racism was a factor?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, racism was certainly a factor in the 19th century. I mean, I think that that was certainly the reason why the United States refused to recognize it, why Haiti was excluded from the family of nations for more than half a century after it gained its independence. And that kind of neglect and exclusion — on the one hand it’s built up a very strong indigenous culture, arts, language …

BILL MOYERS: We never hear about those.

JAMES DOBBINS: Right. On the other hand, it’s led to a very introverted society that didn’t experience the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution or any of the other movements of the 19th and 20th century.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the spiral of violence? I mean, if I remember correctly, only two of the 44 administrations in those 200 years have been peaceful transitions. There’s just one violent upheaval after another through the two centuries.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think that presents a somewhat skewed picture of the country. It’s not a violent country. But, the majority of the Haitian people are poor, unarmed, passive. And, the fact that Aristide could be overthrown and the country taken over by a group of rebels who never numbered more than 200 or 300 is an indication of how weak the institutions of the state were. The state has not been able to preserve the monopoly on force because it has been so weak. Force is routinely used as part of the political dialogue, if you will, but, it’s precisely the ability of small numbers of armed individuals to tyrannize a society of essentially passive and certainly non-threatening peasants and increasingly urban slum dwellers that characterizes the society. It’s not like Somalia or even Iraq where …


JAMES DOBBINS: … you know, everybody has a Kalashnikov in their basement and no pickup truck is complete without a 50 caliber machinegun on their back. It’s not that kind of place.

BILL MOYERS: Yet there have been hundreds of people killed violently this year, and there are something like 14, 15, 16 kidnappings a day, I read, on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

JAMES DOBBINS: I think the criminality has become more serious. The figures for deaths were actually higher in the early 1990s, leading up to the Clinton administration’s intervention in 1994 where up to 1,500 were being killed every year in politically-related violence. The numbers are not that high. On the other hand, common criminality has probably increased because of the chaotic situation, the weakness of the government, and frankly the relative timidity of the international peacekeeping force that’s there.

BILL MOYERS: You were President Clinton’s envoy to Haiti a decade ago. You had your chance to tackle these problems and yet ten years later, there’s so little to show for what you and the administration did. What went wrong?

JAMES DOBBINS: I’ve asked myself that any number of times. I mean, in many ways the 1994 to 1996 intervention was a model of its kind. We got very strong international backing for the intervention, broad international participation. The bulk of the Haitian people were wildly ecstatic and positive about the intervention. We set a series of very clear benchmarks. We achieved all of them. We left on schedule. We held local elections. We held national elections. We installed new democratically elected mayors, legislators and a new president. And we left, and a decade later it doesn’t seem to have made any difference at all. I guess I would say that it was leaving …

BILL MOYERS: After two years?

JAMES DOBBINS: … after only two years that was our fundamental mistake.

BILL MOYERS: What would it have taken? How many years might it have taken to bring the order to the society that would have enabled what you and your colleagues at the RAND Corporation have written about recently — nation-building? What would it have taken?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, we’ve never seen one of these operations succeed in less than seven or eight years — at least, none of the ones that the U.S. has been involved in.

BILL MOYERS: You mean interventions?

JAMES DOBBINS: Nation-building operations, which we define as the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to help bring about a transition to democracy — the sort of thing we did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, the sort of things we tried to do in Somalia and Haiti, the sorts of things that we’ve succeeded somewhat better in doing in Bosnia and Kosovo and that we’re still trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a country or two that is closer to Haiti in its terrible conditions that has been a success that has turned around?

JAMES DOBBINS: There are a number. They tend to be ones where the U.N. rather than the United States was the lead actor. The best example would be Sierra Leone, for instance, which is probably even more of a basket case than Haiti — much higher levels of violence and intimidation in the society — which was as the result of U.N. intervention, backed up largely by Great Britain, turned around. They’ve held democratic elections. It’s peaceful. It’s not a model society, but they’re not killing each other and they are being governed by a democratically elected government.

BILL MOYERS: There is a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti as we speak. How is it going?

JAMES DOBBINS: Not terribly well. They’ve been somewhat timid. The U.S. has declined to provide troops. The U.S. provided the core of the troops for the U.N. force in the mid-1990s. The other countries have not had the credibility to secure compliance without using force in the way the United States probably would have been able to do, and was able to do in the mid-1990s, and haven’t been willing to use force as aggressively as the deteriorating security situation might require.

BILL MOYERS: Didn’t the U.N. come to the U.S. government recently and ask for some American troops to be sent there to reinforce the U.N. mission?

JAMES DOBBINS: They did and reportedly, the American ambassador in Haiti also endorsed that recommendation. The administration decided not to. Given the difficulties of manning the operation in Iraq, it’s easy to understand why they were reluctant to commit even a small force to Haiti. But, I suspect that the experience of the mid-1990s also colored their views. They’re reluctant to walk down the same road Bill Clinton did after having criticized him so bitterly during that period.

BILL MOYERS: You can certainly understand the White House’s reluctance to grab what is a tar baby. When you go in there you’ve got to stay long enough, and we don’t seem to have — the United States doesn’t seem to have patience for Haiti.

JAMES DOBBINS: We never have really. I mean we have gone in for fairly extended periods. I think in the 1920s the Marines went in and we stayed there a reasonably substantial amount of time. But, it’s always a transient commitment. And, then it slips down in our priorities and stays fairly far down.

BILL MOYERS: Which brings me back to nation-building. You and your colleagues at RAND have written what I would call a nation-building manual for dummies like me. But, would you, for the sake of the audience and for me, define exactly what are the steps of nation-building? What is nation-building? How do we know when we see it?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, we define nation-building as the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to bring about a transition to democracy. So, there’s three criteria. One is you’re using armed force. There’s an element of compulsion involved. Second is it’s in the aftermath of a conflict. Now, we’ve discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq that some conflicts are more over than others. But, at least it’s in the aftermath of a conventional conflict. And, thirdly that the object, the reason that you’re using armed force in this situation is to bring about a transition to democracy.

The steps that one needs to take for this are first of all to establish some basic level of security so that goods and people and ideas can move around the society free of intimidation. Secondly, to build up the institutions for local governance — not to substitute for them, but to build up the capacity of the society to govern itself.

Thirdly, to create an environment in which commerce can begin to resume, in which goods and services can begin to be traded, in which international trade can resume. And fourthly, to begin to promote a process of political reform, democratization, stimulating the growth of political parties, free press, civic society. And, finally, and lastly really in priority, economic development as it’s normally thought of. The first task is not to make these societies prosperous. The first just is to make them peaceful and then democratic in the hopes that prosperity will ultimately develop if they make appropriate economic choices.

BILL MOYERS: So, you need to have security in order to grow a rule of law?

JAMES DOBBINS: Security is prerequisite for all of the subsequent steps. Economic assistance, growth of political parties, civil society elections will all be washed away like sandcastles on a beach if you haven’t established a basically secure environment in which people, goods and ideas can circulate free of gross intimidation.

BILL MOYERS: If you could wave the nation-building wand, and have America do what you think would work, what would it be right now?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think as regards Haiti you first have to resolve the divisions in Washington. Haiti is a polarized society, as you saw in the film. But, American policy toward Haiti has been just as polarized. And the polarizations in American attitudes toward Haiti reinforce the polarizations within Haitian society.

BILL MOYERS: And, how do you see that polarization on our part?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think that for a decade it circulated around the figure of President Aristide. Democrats were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had been democratically elected. There was a feeling that he should be reinstalled and allowed to serve out his term. Most Republicans were bitterly opposed to the 1994 intervention. Congress changed hands just a few weeks after the intervention went forward, which diminished the support that the administration could get from Congress at the time. It was very controversial and you sort of had a reversal. Of course more recently when Aristide was driven out of power, when the United States — according to some in the Congress, particularly in the Black Caucus in the Congress — was complicit in that.

And, you sort of had a reversal of fields. I personally think Aristide bears the principal responsibility for Haiti’s failure to take advantages of the possibilities offered by the international intervention in the mid-1990s and I don’t think that even most Democrats were sorry to see him go, although many of them were sorry in the manner of his going.

But, I still think that there’s a polarized debate within Washington over Haiti. And, I think until Democrats and Republicans can agree on an approach to Haiti any individual administration is going to find its capacity to influence events there very limited.

BILL MOYERS: If partisanship is supposed to stop at the water’s edge, and let’s say it did, what might the U.S. do?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think that you need a fairly long term commitment. I think it should be under U.N. leadership, but with strong U.S. backing and participation.

BILL MOYERS: A military occupation you mean?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, you have a military occupation at the moment in effect. It’s not called that. It’s called a peacekeeping mission, and I think the term “occupation” fell out of usage after 1945, and we should’ve kept it out of usage. An international peace enforcement action, if you will, but a stronger force with significant U.S. participation. A much more substantial effort at economic development in the country.

And, the recognition that one election won’t create a sustainable democracy, that you’re going to have to create a pattern over time of free elections and peaceful transitions from one party to the next. So, I think a decade would be a reasonable timeframe to assess for this.

I think a significant increase in the assistance. I mean, it’s pretty remarkable that Iraq in the first year after the U.S. intervention got a 100 times more economic assistance than Haiti got after the first year of the U.S. intervention in Haiti.

BILL MOYERS: So, if I hear you correctly, Mr. Dobbins, You’re saying that the first step is to put enough force in there to maintain order. But, can an outside society do that in a country with, as you’ve already said, its own unique 200 years of history? Could the United States prevail with military force in Haiti over a decade?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, you have to go with and not against the prevailing trends within the society. The United States succeeded in the 1994 to 1996 period in establishing a very high level of security in the country — not ideal. There was still criminality, and there was even some political violence and indeed several political assassinations. But, the numbers were extremely limited by comparison with what we’re seeing today, or what we were seeing before the intervention. Haiti is not Iraq. It’s not Somalia. It’s not Afghanistan. This is not a population that’s heavily armed and employs violence routinely. It’s a society of victims, and they’re victimized by a relatively small class of armed criminals, thugs and people who are prepared to use violence for political ends.

BILL MOYERS: How do they get away with it?

JAMES DOBBINS: They get away with it because the state is very weak. It’s incapable of imposing a monopoly of force. And because the international community is loath to become too deeply embroiled in what, as you’ve noted, is widely regarded as a tar baby.

BILL MOYERS: But, we seem to have no patience for Haiti.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, we tried so many times, and failed so many times that it’s not surprising that there’s a certain weariness.

BILL MOYERS: Why should we care? I mean, it’s hard to maintain concern for Iraq.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think there are both practical geo-political, economic and humanitarian reasons to be concerned. It’s on our doorstep. It’s an overnight boat ride away. We can prevent large numbers of Haitians arriving in the United States only by sending them back without fulfilling what most would argue are international obligations to determine whether or not they were, in fact, valid refugees.

BILL MOYERS: Escaping persecution and …

JAMES DOBBINS: Escaping persecution. We, in fact, do not make any such determination. We simply return them automatically. We treat Haitians very different from the way we treat Cubans for instance in terms of those who flee and reach the United States. So, we’re sort of forced to turn a blind eye to the political as well as economic circumstances that force these people to flee the country. And, return them — rather cold-heartedly — lest we have a million of them on our shore, which we could easily have within a matter of weeks if we opened the floodgates.

That’s an unstable and unsatisfactory situation to have right on your border. Haiti is a poor, largely ungoverned society, which is prey to drug smuggling. It’s a transit point for drugs from South America. It’s a potential breeding ground for terrorism. It’s certainly a breeding ground for diseases — AIDS for instance. And, other potentially communicable diseases. It’s a black hole the way Lebanon was a black hole in the 1980s.

BILL MOYERS: And, yet today, it’s flourishing again.

JAMES DOBBINS: It is, but I mean, for a decade it was sort of an international black hole, a source of criminality, violence, terrorism. Haiti could easily become that and so we have those reasons, and we have the plain humanitarian reasons of having one of the poorest nations in the world right on our doorstep.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think those elections coming up later this fall with be fair and free?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think they’ll be as fair and free as the U.N. can make them. I think they probably will not achieve a level of participation that marked the elections that occurred in the first half of through the middle of the 1990s, including Aristide’s first elections and the elections, which while not perfect, were probably better than you’ll have this time that occurred during the Clinton intervention.

The levels of violence are higher. The levels of intimidation are higher. On the other hand if Aristide supporters participate, if you have an election in which the full spectrum actually gets out there and competes for the vote, that’ll be the first time in over a decade that you haven’t had one side or the other boycott the election process.

The problem with Haitian elections is that one side or the other always declare them invalid and refuse to abide by the results. If you get an election this time in which all of the major contenders for power actually participate, that would be a big step forward.

BILL MOYERS: You have made a career showing up in these volatile states, one after another, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan. Why this attraction to failed states?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I can’t say I volunteered for most of these. I mean, it started when just after the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, where they suddenly wanted somebody to help arrange a graceful exit and I was brought in to negotiate, essentially, the parameters for American withdrawal and one thing led to another. Having gotten us out of Somalia, it was decided I’d be a good person to help get us into Haiti. Having gotten us into Haiti, I was then told I had to wait and get us out. So that was a sort of a two year assignment. And, by the time that was over, it was on to Bosnia and Kosovo, and then finally this administration when it suddenly found itself saddled with a nation-building mission — after having committed itself in the campaign to avoid such activities — needed somebody to work with the Afghan opposition in order to install a successor to the Taliban regime.

And, I was once again called on. I would’ve much preferred to continue my career as a Europeanist and, spend the rest of my tours in Paris and London.

BILL MOYERS: That was your specialty. That was your earlier trade.


BILL MOYERS: So, what do you take away from all these years of experience about American intervention in places that are so volatile, so troubled, so dangerous?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, what I take away from it is first of all that we’re not going to be able to avoid these kinds of missions. And, secondly that we need to begin to learn to do them better. For too long we’ve treated each of these successive interventions as if it’s the first one we’ve ever done. We go in with new ideas, new people, new concepts. But, worst of all we treat each of them as if it’s the last one we’re ever going to do, and when they’re completed, we don’t make a concerted effort to draw conclusions, create an ongoing doctrine for the conduct of such operations. We don’t build a cadre of experienced people who can go from one operation to the next.

And, as the result, we’re constantly improvising. We’re constantly surprised by the challenges we meet. We need to make this a more professional approach.

BILL MOYERS: You look at that film and you hear lots of talk in Haiti politics about getting power, getting our group in, our tribe, our clan in, this particular faction in. But, I didn’t hear anybody in that film outlining the vision for Haiti once you get power.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, that’s a not uncommon phenomenon in situations like this where the society’s power is highly personalized and it is a question of replacing personalities rather than of thought — through concepts of governance. And, it’s particularly acute in Haiti, which has been so isolated from the world and such an introverted and basically corrupted society, where power is about controlling the instrumentalities of governance and the channels of foreign assistance that are that are provided and rewarding one’s supporters.

BILL MOYERS: I hear you saying it’s hard in a country like that to have the equivalent of a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Right? It’s very hard to bring together a group of people who have been spending a lot of time thinking about nation-building.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, it’s certainly hard to bring together a group of representatives that enjoy the legitimacy and the support of the population in the way that the representatives who came to Philadelphia in 1787 did. It’s a highly polarized society.

It’s had more constitutions than it needs and most of them are long, complex and argued over endlessly. What it lacks is a coherent political class and a sense of national consensus about the basics of governance.

BILL MOYERS: A lack of a political class. We heard lots of political talk in the film, but this doesn’t represent an establishment does it?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, it represents an establishment and a counter establishment. The establishment, the small proportion of wealthy people prefer not to themselves exercise power if possible, but to manipulate power from the background. The counter establishment, those who purport to represent the poorest elements of the society and in many cases undoubtedly are genuine in their desire to do so, have no real thought-through programs of how they’re going to accomplish that.

And the instrumentalities of the state are so weak that even if they did have programs, it would be extremely difficult for them to implement them.

BILL MOYERS: And, it will take, if I hear you correctly, it will take an enduring effort by either the U.N. or the United States — preferably the United States in your judgment — to keep order there until a certain political stability and a political class can arrive?

JAMES DOBBINS: I don’t think it’s either/or. I think there’s no option but to have both engaged.

BILL MOYERS: Both the U.N. and the U.S.?

JAMES DOBBINS: The U.S. is the only country that has any influence in Haiti.


JAMES DOBBINS: Well, because it’s so big, it’s so powerful, it’s so near all Haiti’s other neighbors are smaller than Haiti, less powerful than Haiti and Haiti has no real experience with them. The United States is the only external power.

On the other hand, it’s important that the United States exercise that power through international instrumentalities, which legitimize it, which broaden the participation, which bring other countries and the resources of other countries to bear.

BILL MOYERS: Like the U.N.?

JAMES DOBBINS: Like the U.N. But, the U.N. in itself, without U.S. backing and participation will, I think, not be adequate to the task.

BILL MOYERS: Have you met Guy Philippe?

JAMES DOBBINS: I have not.

BILL MOYERS: Guy Philippe certainly comes across in the film as a charismatic person with an aura, like John F. Kennedy, I remember in 1960, 1959 and 1960. Do you pin any hopes on him?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, Aristide was nothing but charisma. I mean, he was a very attractive figure — well-spoken, tremendous appeal to the population. And, there’s still a lot of loyalty and support in the population, although much less than he had a decade ago. Guy Philippe’s background is a rather checkered one. I didn’t hear anything in what he had to say which indicates how he would govern or how we would use the power had he had it to change Haitian society for the better.

One can always hope, but he didn’t strike me as somebody who had a carefully thought-through and convincing program for reform in Haiti.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve echoed here what we heard in the film that Haiti is so deeply mired in poverty that it seems a hopeless basket case. Why is it so mired in poverty? How did it get into this deep hole?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think it’s really two centuries of isolation and at least the first century of rather vicious discrimination that gave Haiti a very poor start.

BILL MOYERS: The racism of the outside world?

JAMES DOBBINS: The racism of the outside world, which refused to recognize it.

BILL MOYERS: Especially the United States.

JAMES DOBBINS: The United States failed to recognize it for the first 50 years of its existence — had no diplomatic relations with it whatsoever. France imposed an enormous indemnity for the losses as the result of the revolution, which freed Haiti. And, even in the decades after Haiti became a member of the international community, it was largely ignored. It has enjoyed brief periods of interest in Washington and the U.S. has made several efforts to promote reform. But, they’ve usually been short-lived and in recent years there’s been such a high level of controversy in Washington over our policy toward Haiti that it’s very difficult for the United States to make an enduring impact there.

BILL MOYERS: So if we don’t do this nation-building in Haiti, can Haiti go it alone?

JAMES DOBBINS: I don’t think it’s very likely. I think that most societies in conflict in the world are societies that have been in conflict before. Most societies that come out of conflict are going to go back into conflict. It’s only when the international community intervenes in a fairly decisive fashion and makes an enduring commitment that societies coming out of conflict stay out of conflict. And, we’ve seen those kinds of commitments work fairly effectively. I think the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti is essential. I think the U.N. is doing as a good a job as it reasonably can be expected to do, but I think unless Haiti’s biggest, most powerful neighbor becomes more associated with the effort it’s not likely to be effective.

BILL MOYERS: Given the obsession of the United States right now with Iraq, do you see any possibility that the administration would get involved in Haiti?

JAMES DOBBINS: I don’t see a short term possibility for a greater American involvement in Haiti, but I hope over time those attitudes may change. I think if these elections produce a reasonably positive result, that could become a basis for a greater commitment. One of the reasons that there’s a reluctance to commit is because the present government in Haiti is so ineffectual and disappointing. On the other hand, if the elections turn out to be a disaster, very low levels of participation, contested results, intimidation against candidates, that too might produce some change. We’ll just have to wait and see.

BILL MOYERS: So, what do you, James Dobbins, pin your hopes for Haiti on?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I can’t say that I have high hopes. I’m somewhat pessimistic. I believe that you’re going to need to develop a consensus in Washington between Republicans and Democrats to make an enduring commitment to Haiti.

BILL MOYERS: You are an idealist.

JAMES DOBBINS: And, I think in the absence of that it’s going to be very difficult for the United States to influence the situation there in an enduring and consistent fashion, which is going to be necessarily to introduce the changes. Now, we’ve had bipartisan policies towards other parts of the world toward the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Toward Israel and Palestine, toward most of Asia. The Caribbean really — Haiti, Cuba and Latin America — have been much more partisan in American foreign policy over the last several decades than our attitudes toward most of the rest of the world, and it really does paralyze our ability to carry through long term programs, which are the only kind that are going to make an impact in a society as corrupted as Haiti.

BILL MOYERS: James Dobbins, thank you very much for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.


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