Soenke Zehle on Sat, 6 Mar 2004 16:43:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Failed States All Over

Haiti and state failure, anyone? Online a decade after it's introduction
into general usage, 'state failure' seems to have become the
default-reference in case a country is in serious trouble. [2] But whatever
you make of the current reporting on Haiti, do give the term/concept a
chance, the TNI report [1] is not a bad place to start. I'd also, of course,
appreciate comments on the piece-in-progress I sent to sarai on the matter
[3], sz

[1] TNI et al. "Failed and Collapsed States in the International System." A
report prepared by the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, the African
Studies Centre, Leiden, the Center of Social Studies, Coimbra University,
Portugal and the Peace Research Center- CIP-FUHEM, Madrid (Dec 2003).

[2] Salutin, Rick. "Failed states all over." Rabble (5 March 2004).

Haiti is this week's failed state. "It has been a failed state for 200
 years" (National Review). "For the second time in a year the United States
is sending troops to a failed state" (Newsday). It joins "all the other
poorer, weaker countries that could become failed states" (New York Times).
Like Afghanistan: "We are talking about a failed state" (Toronto Star).
Liberia: "now considered a failed state" (Times again). Or the "Arab world":
"These failed states will continue to export trouble" (Margaret Wente).

You'd hardly know the term emerged a mere decade ago, as "a disturbing new
trend," in Foreign Policy magazine. It has such a solid ring, like "empire"
or "delegation." But it is really more a sign to cheer or boo, smile or
shudder than a way to describe a real society.

Talk about patronizing. Why not just call them losers? (And do it quick,
before they call you a name first.) It puts someone in their place while
absolving the user of any blame for the failure, and simultaneously
justifying either intervention (poor things) or abstention (they're
hopeless). Neat trick.

So I want to suggest that "failed" could also be used the way "disappeared"
is now used in Latin America: as an active verb. Countries can "fail" other
countries, the way the police or army "disappear" protesters. Diana
Johnstone, a fine U.S. journalist who has reported from Europe for decades,
recently wrote: "The great lesson of Vietnam drawn by American strategists
was that it was easier to arm a guerrilla movement than to combat one, and
easier to destroy an unfriendly state than to build a friendly one.
Nation-building was abandoned in favour of destruction pure and simple." She
applies this stunning, revisionist model to Afghanistan.

There the U.S. supported guerrillas like Osama bin Laden in order to
humiliate the Soviet Union and undermine it. Once that plan succeeded, the
U.S. abandoned Afghanistan. This is often attributed to the fecklessness of
America, or its short attention span, making U.S. policy sound klutzy yet
endearing. But what if leaving the country to the chaos of its warlords was
deliberate? If a troublesome lot, like the Taliban, then took power, the
U.S. could go back in, rebuild the guerrillas, change regimes, and buzz off
again - as it has - leaving more chaos till the next round. Nothing is
perfect, or forever. It's a matter of a failed state sometimes being the
best option.

Now try this with Haiti. The U.S. navy intervened 24 times between 1849 and
1913 to support American business. In 1915, the U.S. invaded and ruled for
19 years. It backed the brutal Duvaliers from 1956 to 1986. After its
candidate lost to Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti's first democratic
election ever, in 1990, the U.S. supported a 1991 coup that led to thousands
massacred. It returned Aristide to power in 1994, but only after he agreed
to economic concessions that made social instability inevitable.

When he was re-elected massively in 1999, the U.S. forced the withholding of
$500-million in economic aid - in a country whose yearly budget is
$300-million. Why? Perhaps to warn against the kind of bad example Haiti
almost set in the Caribbean - and so close to Cuba. This week the U.S.
backed the coup and insisted the president leave, though he was ready to
compromise. To the extent that Haiti has often "failed," it hardly did so on
its own. In the real world - personal or political - almost no one fails by

Or take Iraq. Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani blamed the U.S. for
failing to take security measures before this week's grisly bombings. We
warned them, he said. Is he just being an ingrate? The rational people in
the Bush government knew, before the war, that the likely outcome of
overthrowing Saddam would be civil war and chaos. (The fanatics among them
believed a miraculous, U.S.-style, democratic transformation would occur.)
The question is: Did they find such an outcome acceptable?

I know it seems counterintuitive. Globalizing business leaders and
foreign-policy wonks are supposed to value stability. But there may be cases
where it's unavailable, or its price is too high. In that case, "failing" a
state might offer its own perks. At the least, it sounds pretty far outside
the box.

But I recently watched the 1969 film, Burn, with Marlon Brando. It's vaguely
modelled on Haiti's original revolution. The Brando character, a British
secret agent, first eggs the island's black slaves into revolt against their
European masters, then goads the light-skinned urban merchant class into
seizing control of the rebellion out of fear. (Those merchants are dead
ringers for the Haitian businessmen we saw on CNN a lot last week.) The
island itself ends up burned to the ground, its economy destroyed.

Don't worry, says the Brando character. It's happened before. It's all for
the best.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, Rick Salutin's column appears
every Friday.

[3] <> (lots of bad pdfs, though,
not sure what happened)

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