"The U.S. military controls the Port-au-Prince airport where only one runway is functioning and has been effectively running aid operations. However, the United Nations is taking the lead in the critical task of coordinating aid."
"The UN is providing the security, all right: UN personnel travel with armed guards, but the locals are left defenseless. ... Rescue teams for various countries are occasionally seen in [Port au Prince], led by armed UN personnel who are not taking chances. Little rescue work is taking place at night, especially after a UN food warehouse was looted."
So if Bill says the UN is providing the security, which is virtually nonexistent, and the UN says the US is in charge of aid distribution, which has been at a trickle, who has really been in charge of what during these past few agonizing days?
The only people who seem to know the answer are a handful of very seasoned journalists who've been slogging it out in Port au Prince since the first hours after the quake struck; among these are CNN reporter Anderson Cooper.
Anderson has toughened up considerably since he wandered weeping and dazed around hurricane-devastated New Orleans; between then and now he has been up-close witness to so many disaster-aid snafus in different world regions that he could, and should, write a field manual on how not to do disaster relief.
Out there on the ground in Port au Prince, away from the situation rooms and endless planning meetings, "Leaderships is by rumor," said Anderson last night. No one knows who's in charge, no one who knows where the instructions are coming from -- only, "I heard a rumor."
Why should things be this way?
"I keep hearing, 'We're in the assessment phase,' and 'we're doing logistics.' Too many assessment teams and not enough relief distribution and security," says Anderson.
His analysis and Irwin Redlener's of the U.S. National Center for Disaster Relief dovetail: For heaven's sake, how much assessment did you need after seeing the city in ruins?
Are aid distribution and security gridlock any worse in Haiti than in other disaster-hit regions when numerous foreign aid agencies and governments converge on the same spot at the same time, and the local government is ineffective?
Well, both Haiti's airport and seaport took a bad hit in the earthquake, which made any measurable supply distribution in the first couple days after the quake well-nigh impossible, except overland or by helicopter from the Dominican Republic's side of the island.
What was USAID doing?
But by day four the big obstacle to supply distribution was coming from inside Haiti: large amounts of supplies had been delivered and unloaded from planes but distribution from that point was ad-hoc, catch-can, every agency for itself. There was no distribution plan -- unless there were so many that the entire operation collapsed in chaos.
Yet the U.S. military held up its end: they got the airport up and running to the point where several flights a day could land and take off; they flew in forklifts and handled the offloading. From there things got fuzzy. For America's part, disaster relief in Haiti was supposed to be a joint military-USAID project. So just where has USAID been and what exactly has it been doing since the airport was made functional enough to handle relief shipments?
I'm going to take an educated guess and say that USAID has been busy coordinating with heads of governments from around the world and UN agencies. In any case, USAID is not qualified to develop a rational relief distribution plan in the wake of a disaster. The New York City or Miami-Dade County police force -- or for that matter the National Guard -- could have put together a workable relief distribution plan, and they wouldn't have needed to be on the ground doing endless assessments before coming up with the plan.
As to why President Obama didn't tap Lieutenant General (Ret.) Russel L. Honoré, who did a bang-up job of commanding the Joint Task Force for Katrina disaster relief -- and as a bonus most probably knows enough Creole and French to get by on the streets of Haiti (he's an African-Creole American) -- to head up the distribution part, stay tuned:
MREs vs nutritional biscuits
This is an unscientific survey but from what I saw with my own two eyes on CNN and Fox this weekend of the food distribution efforts in Port au Prince, there was a striking difference when the UN tried and the US military tried:
The UN truck would pull up, a crowd of Haitians would gather while people inside the truck would throw biscuit packages at them. When Haitians began fighting over the biscuits or mobbing the truck, it would speed off.
In some cases people in the crowd would shout angrily that the biscuits were no good because the expiration date was 2010; people would then throw the biscuits down and grind them to dust under their feet, the crowd would turn into an unruly mob. (The life-saving biscuits are perfectly good; the expiration date is November of this year.)
But at a food distribution site run by the U.S. military, peace reigned. The Haitians formed a line. Young American soldiers with cherubic smiles handed MREs on a paper plate to each Haitian, who collected water bottles at another point on the line. The line moved very quickly.
And the Haitians were smiling while they stood in line. Why were starving people smiling? Because they saw the U.S. military uniforms, and they saw the guns in the hands of competent soldiers -- competent, not the UN's Blue Helmets. They knew they would be able to eat the food they were given without it being snatched away by other hungry people and gangsters looking to sell the food.
So what's the real reason we didn't see the latter scene repeated all over Port au Prince as early as 15th?
U.S. Foreign Policy as Usual
I'll tell you what I think happened: Robert Gates allowed himself to be spooked. Barack Obama allowed himself to be spooked. And Hillary Clinton allowed herself to be spooked.
The upshot? The Number One Priority for the government of the United States of America in the aftermath of the one of the worst humanitarian disasters in more than a century was --
Trying to assure the rest of the world that a U.S. military presence in Haiti was not there to take over the country.
The truth is that in the face of such a crisis there's no time to do two things well at the same time. There has to be real leader and one overriding goal. Instead, there have been partnerships and 'priorities.' Gates and Clinton were more focused on State and Defense 'getting along' and demonstrating a high level of cooperation, Barack Obama was more focused on being a team player with the European Union and the United Nations, than they were on saving lives.
The But Also presidents
Someday, someday, an American man will step out the shadows, a man who is very much like Vladimir Putin, a man knows that only one priority can be at the top of any national leader's list. He will not be confused, cooperative, or coordinating. He will fight with every atom of his being to make the world respect the United States, as Putin fought to bash the Europeans and Americans back over the line and make them respect Russia's right to live.
Someday, such an American President will appear. That is my faith, my prayer, and it's all that keeps this American from despair. But he didn't appear in time to save the Haitian survivors of an earthquate from untold suffering.
Oh woe, that it should come to the point where history's longest-running democracy needs a leader like Vladimir Putin! Yet when you look over your shoulder you can see how it happened. For generations now the United States has had a series of presidents who wanted to defend the United States but also to promote world peace, but also to make the world safe from communism, but also to make the world safe for democracy, but also to cooperate with other nations, but also to improve global trade, but also but also but also but also....
These are all fine goals but the way this world is set up, you can't do myriad things equally well at the same time -- not when it comes to the complexities of leading a nation.
And so it came down to today, where the highest priority of the United States of America is harmonizing with the United Nations and the European Union.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that he intends to ask the UN Security to authorize 1,500 more UN police and 2,000 more troops to join the 7,000 military peacekeepers and 2,100 international police already in Haiti. And the U.K. Mirror reported this morning:
There was still little sign of aid distribution. The airport was full of loaded planes but little was getting out. Yesterday Oxfam could not distribute water as delivery trucks were out of petrol.The Mirror neatly summed the situation: "$600 million donated to help Haiti but you still can't get a cup of water."
6:15 UPDATE - Fox News Cable report
The U.S. military has set up a food distribution station at a nine-hole golf course, where 5,000 Haitians have camped out. How is the military keeping order with such a large crowd?
First, the military designated Haitian volunteers to set up the lines and decide who's at the front of the line -- mainly children and women.
Second, when the lines get unruly, the U.S. declare a "mass timeout." They sit down on the ground, and the volunteers follow suit. This mass timeout strategy takes about a minute to restore order.
Tragically simple, eh?
Also, the food that the military is distributed at the golf course is not MREs; it's a package containing packets with enough caloric content to sustain a person for a full day.