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 themselves.

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.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.