WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pledge for long-term U.S. help to earthquake-stricken Haiti could saddle Washington with a lead role in yet another of the world's most desperate countries -- a risky proposition.
The United States sent more troops to Haiti on Monday to help protect the relief operation from marauding looters as tens of thousands of earthquake survivors waited desperately for promised food and medical care.
Obama has mobilized a huge emergency aid effort for Haiti and officials say the United States will remain involved in rebuilding the impoverished Caribbean nation so that, after some 200 years of independence, it can eventually stand on its own.
This is what could happen next.
THE U.S. TAKES THE LEAD
U.S. officials have stressed that the assistance effort, which involves thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines along with civilian search-and-rescue teams, is being organized in cooperation with the Haitian government led by President Rene Preval.
But the Haitian government, fragile at the best of times, is only gradually getting back on its feet, meaning that many of the operational decisions must come from Washington.
Experts say the United States has few options: it must either step up to the task of relief rebuilding, or open itself to criticism and a possible new flood of Haitian refugees.
Dan Erikson, a Haiti specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, said at least in the short term the United States was calling the shots.
"Haiti had barely functioning ministries even before the earthquake," Erikson said. "The Obama administration can describe this as a partnership, but it is one where one partner is doing all the work and has all the authority."
It will not be the first time U.S. soldiers have taken the lead in Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country. After decades of political turbulence, the United States first sent troops to Haiti in 1915. They stayed 19 years.
More recently, former U.S. President Bill Clinton helped restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he was ousted by the military in 1991. But President George W. Bush did little to help Aristide stay in office when his second term was cut short in 2004 by an armed revolt.
Political analysts say the Obama administration is motivated by a variety of factors, not least a deep-held belief that the United States should get more involved in stabilizing Haiti and cannot be seen shirking responsibility for a disaster on its doorstep.
The Obama administration has already granted temporary asylum to tens of thousands of Haitians illegally in the country, but there are concerns that many more could arrive if the situation does not improve.
But while the Haiti rescue effort has thus far won strong bipartisan support -- former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush will help lead the U.S. response -- a drawn-out, messy involvement in the country could embolden critics who say Washington cannot afford another expensive nation-building project when domestic priorities such as the 10 percent jobless rate and ballooning federal deficit remain unaddressed.
If the U.S.-led relief drive fails to bring swift order to Haiti, the Obama administration also risks appearing disorganized and inefficient -- criticism that hurt the Bush administration after the 2005 Katrina hurricane.
"The Obama administration cannot allow itself to be tarnished by the kind of headlines that Bush was getting because of Katrina," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank.
UNITED NATIONS MOVES TO THE FORE
U.S. officials sketch out a long-term strategy under which the United Nations -- which already has a peacekeeping force of about 9,000 in the country -- takes the lead.
While U.S. forces will contribute much of the initial emergency earthquake response, over time this will shift to a broad-based international assistance project that will concentrate on areas such as energy, farming and healthcare.
"Before this earthquake, we weren't talking about restoring (Haiti), we were talking about building a whole new country," former President Clinton said on U.S. television on Sunday.
"And there was a government plan that they developed in cooperation with the U.N., but it was their plan. And what I believe will happen is they will take all this devastation into account, all the work that has to be done, and they will rewrite their plan."
Coordination should be not too difficult. Bill Clinton is already the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, and repeated donor conferences have established a well-known set of development priorities as well as a mechanism -- the Interim Cooperation Framework -- for delivering the help.
U.N. and NGO offices in Haiti are themselves struggling with the quake's aftermath. But given time, analysts say they should be well positioned to help channel assistance.
The international relief effort is expected to get a boost at a Montreal conference next week designed to assess both Haiti's current challenges and long-term stabilization and reconstruction.
The U.N. Security Council met on Monday to consider a request for about 1,500 police and 2,000 extra troops for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country, which would significantly boost the U.N. role there.
THE HELP DRIES UP
Some analysts say perhaps the biggest fear is that time will push Haiti off the priority list as other disasters intervene. For Haiti, already among the world's least developed nations, this could be a compound catastrophe.
"Donor fatigue is a very real concept," Birns said.
With a population of 9 million, an annual per capita income of just $560 and high infant mortality and HIV/AIDS rates, Haiti needs help virtually across the board, but often lacks the ability to handle it when it comes.
"Often a lot more money is pledged than is actually delivered. And once the money is delivered, the Haitian government doesn't have the capacity to execute so the money doesn't get spent," said Erikson.
Still, like many development experts, he saw the earthquake as a possible fresh start for Haiti in its relations with its powerful northern neighbor -- which this time is intervening for humanitarian, rather than political, reasons.
"I think we ought to care from a humanitarian perspective and I also think from a strategic perspective because it makes sense to have a stable democracy in our neighborhood," former President George W. Bush said in a U.S. television interview. (Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Patricia Wilson, Chris Wilson and Claudia Parsons)
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