Now the Tourists Arrive in Port-au-Prince

by Martin Peretz | January 17, 2010

Today, it was Hillary Clinton who paid the sympathy call to Haiti, or actually to Haiti's president, René Préval. The secretary of state said she would stay at the airport only for a few hours in order not to be a burden in the city, where she uttered the usual platitudes. But the arrival of her airplane was clearly just another intrusion on the desperate work going on, since the Federal Aviation Authority, which is administering the field, had already been closed to inbound flights.

This was the worst earthquake in Haiti in fully two centuries. And, since the country is among the five poorest countries on earth, its infrastructure is, at best, primitive. Its social organization is inoperative and nonexistent when catastrophes like this one happen. One index of this is that aid from northern Haiti, which was untouched by the devastation, never arrived in the south. In fact, nothing was ever sent.

It is a betrayal of the Haitian people to promise them, in addition to immediate economic aid, social and psychological reconstruction. The fact is that enthusiasm for the victims will not last. Moreover, there is nowhere from which the discipline for this kind of elementary state building will come. This is a beat-down society.

"Speaking personally," said Mrs. Clinton, "I know of the great resilience and strength of the Haitian people." This is pabulum. And wherefrom comes Hillary's special knowledge? Perhaps from her 1975 honeymoon spent in Haiti with hubby Bill and her mother, father, and brothers Hughie and Tony, the latter two especially delicate souls.

On Sunday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will arrive with his portentous entourage and also mouth solidarity and sillinesses. Perhaps the S.G. will provide the world with a report from the special envoy of the U.N. to Haiti, Bill Clinton, on any progress that he has made in his two years in the post. This appointment, like Tony Blair's as the Quartet's representative in the Middle East, is a sign of the symbolic nonsense in which the powers indulge.

So what will Mr. Ban Ki-moon do in Port-au-Prince? Take up a slot at the airfield. Take up the time of many Haitian governments officials, some of whom may just have important chores they put aside in deference to the arrival of His Excellency, widely recognized on New York's East River as a boob.

The fact is that President Obama has done what needed to be done: the mobilization of a not-so-small air force and a not-so-small naval flotilla and the Army Corps of Engineers and medical facilities and rescue personnel, etc., etc. This is a big part of the grandeur of America and its role in the world. Obama did this without pretension, but with quiet eloquence enhanced by the facts he had created on the ground.

And, yes, I did check on help from the Middle East.

Israel sent two airplanes, the first with 220 doctors and rescue personnel, the second with an entire field hospital, already operational in Haiti, plus other instruments for the extraction of people from what has literally befallen them. Israel is an expert on these matters. An old and adventurous friend of mine, Lyova Eliav, a man of the Negev, had once run a pre-Khomeini relief and rebuilding effort after a terrible earthquake in Iran.

There isn't much help from the Arab world. Someplace on the Web, it says that Morocco is sending $1 million in relief aid, plus $32,000 cash. Abu Dhabi is sending something more. Maybe Saudi Arabia will also pledge some cash. But, as with Saudi aid to the Palestinians, we'll then have to see whether Riyadh really comes through.

The French are a special case. Please read Tunku Varadarajan's provocative and sensible piece in The Daily Beast. It is called "Why Haiti's Earthquake is France's Problem." Is this provocative enough?

P.S. I am also glad tha Obama has gotten not only Clinton into this chore, but also George W. Bush. He's a very good judge of how you deal with calamities. "Heckuva Job, Brownie."

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