When Soft Hearts Make Smart Policy

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, January 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

When Soft Hearts Make Smart Policy


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

The epic Haitian earthquake--secretary of state Hillary Clinton called it "biblical"--brought the woeful island nation back into the American mind. The moment was totally in keeping with past experience: Haiti makes news only when something really, really miserable happens there. "It's the most dismal place on earth," a businessman friend of mine remembered from trips there in recent decades. Even the secular New York Times alluded to the question Lisa Miller takes on for us: why does God hate Haiti? Theological matters aside, the reality is indisputable: Haiti's history is long and troubled. Columbus discovered it, the French exploited it, and the United States occupied it. In 1915, dispatching Marines to Haiti, President Woodrow Wilson referred to the nation as a "dusky little republic"; soon we would bring it Jim Crow.

Now Americans are, as ever, responding to a televised tragedy with generosity. The ritual of disaster is unfolding with flawless efficiency--the breaking news alerts, the cable coverage, the anchors' move into the country, and now the magazine covers. As rituals go, it is not a bad one, for there is a commensurate outpouring of money and support. We know our parts well. Schoolchildren learn about the fragility of the world and the centrality of service to others when they are asked for coins or canned goods; grown-ups consumed by getting and spending are reminded that things could be worse--a lot worse.

There is an inevitable sameness to the problems of the world. Earthquake, hurricane, fire, famine, poverty--some acts of nature, others man-made, some both. The enormity of loss envelops us early on, but interest fades. This time will be different, we tell ourselves in the drama of the moment. This time we will stay the course; we won't give up; we won't let our minds stray.

But this time probably won't be different, and history suggests that we won't stay the course. The best hope for the country to follow through tomorrow on its sympathetic impulses of today lies in seeing Haiti in terms of our larger national interests. Perhaps unfortunately, humanitarianism is not a foreign policy. …

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