January 25th, 2010
09:14 PM ET

Haiti is not our long-term responsibility. Detroit is.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/US/01/13/haiti.us.coast.guard/smlvid.coast.guard.cnn.jpg caption="U.S. military aid reaches Haiti." width=300 height=169]

David Gewirtz | BIO
AC360° Contributor
Director, U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute

First, I'd like to send a good thought to all those suffering today in Haiti, and all their family members here in the United States.

No one can look at the horror of Haiti and not feel both a deep sense of sadness and a desire to help. It seems almost mean and selfish to suggest that we need to do something other than provide our full support to this devastated nation, but that's exactly what I'm about to do.

Over the next few weeks, there's going to be a crucial decision-making point when policy makers will have to decide whether to move from a perfectly valid emergency response policy to a potentially disastrous nation-building policy.

Since the 1960s, we have operated under President Kennedy's mandate of moral obligation:

"The answer is that there is no escaping our obligations: our moral obligations as a wise leader and good neighbor in the interdependent community of free nations - our economic obligations as the wealthiest people in a world of largely poor people, as a nation no longer dependent upon the loans from abroad that once helped us develop our own economy - and our political obligations as the single largest counter to the adversaries of freedom."

But times have changed since JFK was President and Dr. King gave his great speech challenging us to "let freedom ring" from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Today, we're again dangerously in debt, this time to "adversaries of freedom" like China. Many of our own people are desperately hurting.

Foreclosures rose by 21 percent in 2009. Nearly half of all Americans owe more on their homes than they're actually worth. As we've all come to know, millions of Americans over-reached and bought homes they knew they couldn't afford. But Americans need to live somewhere and the lack of affordable housing (whether to rent or own) is a huge problem in America.

Millions more Americans will lose their homes in 2010. Our bridges and levees are crumbling and at least one out of every ten American adults is out of work.

After more than four years, there are still people who haven't been able to return home from the damage inflicted by Katrina. Cities like Detroit and Chicago have unemployment rates above 22% and thousands of abandoned homes due to the damage inflicted by bankers and the financial industry.

America needs to get its own house in order.

Before we decide it's our responsibility to rebuild all the lost homes in Haiti, let's remember that it's our actual responsibility to make sure our own people have roofs over their heads.

Haiti isn't our problem alone. China and Germany and other economically powerful countries also have a "good neighbor" responsibility to less fortunate nations like Haiti. In fact, Haiti's not really our problem at all.

Our "good neighbor" responsibility today is to our actual neighbors here in America, the mom in Milwaukee, the dad in Detroit, the grandparents in Grand Rapids, and the brothers and sisters in Baltimore and Cincinnati - not the huddled masses of Haiti, horrifying as their situation might be.

Sure, for a few weeks, it makes sense to send American forces into Haiti to help them recover from the initial shock of the crisis. But with two wars already stop-lossing our troops to the breaking point, we can't afford to adopt another country as a matter of national policy.

Until we can make sure that the kids in Kentucky can get medical care, or the millions of uninsured Americans can have access to the drugs they need to stay alive, we can't commit to sending a never-ending supply of free medicine to another country while at the same time blocking lower-cost medicine from entering the U.S. at our borders - with the blessing of the U.S. Congress - simply because Big Pharma wants to make an even greater profit.

In the past week, we've seen cabinet members and the First Lady ask Americans to give $10 to the Red Cross by texting "HAITI". Perhaps, instead, these leaders should ask, nay, demand that all those bankers who bungled billions and stole millions in bonuses directly from taxpayers, send some of it to Haiti. Or perhaps, even, to the newly homeless in Houston.

I hesitated to write this article because those in Haiti are in a world of hurt and they truly need our help. Unfortunately, American policy makers tend to make long-term strategic mistakes in the name of compassion and good PR. We're already stretching our resources too thin. Taking on yet another long-term responsibility for yet another nation may mean we have to abandon more Americans in more American cities.

Once we fix our own problems, then we can muck around in other nations, trying to prove we still have the chops to be a "wise leader and good neighbor". But until we can take care of our own, we have no right trying to fix the ills of the entire world.

Follow David on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Director of the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute and Editor-in-Chief of the ZATZ magazines. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

soundoff (83 Responses)
  1. William of Iowa

    A chapter in the tome for conservative, isolationist believers whose shallow outlook of our nation ignores the efforts of hard working, well intentioned citizens who are attempting to reinvent Detroit. It is not beyond Detroit or anywhere else in America to reinvent itself and achieve success. Their are individuals in Detroit who are doing just that, which has gone unnoticed by Mr. Gewirtz. In Haiti, the very existence of it's people is threatened by a force they have no control over and demands the effort and resources of many to stave off a human tragedy. On the one hand Detroit and an effort to stabilize a way of life – on the other an effort to stabilize life.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  2. Alan

    Absolutely agree, I'm all for helping the poorer nations of the world. But right now there are so may people that can use our help right here at home. For those people that say try being a family in Haiti right now...I say try being a family in Detroit that has both parents out of work, and trying to put food on the table for you and your 3 kids. When the bank is taking your house, you can't sell because you owe 60K on a home worth 30K, the food bank is running out of food, there is no bright outlook for another job, and you can't even afford the gas to get your kids to school after the city cut bussing out of the budget. The education system is so bad that high school graduates can only read at a 5th grade level, and do math at a 4th grade level. Its the end of January and I know 2 families that haven't had heat since the beginning of Dec. I would love to help Haiti out...but we have problems of our own right now. I understand that they are living in tents, people here are living in cars in the middle of winter if their cars havent been taken away from them. I understand they had their homes destroyed. People here have no home to get destroyed. Before we spend money on rebuilding a foreign nation maybe we should concentrate on saving what we have here in our own backyards.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  3. Mayor

    It is good that as a country we have responded to the emergency in Haiti.

    I don't think it automatically follows that we CAN or SHOULD be involved in rebuilding a nation that has very little structure (government, police, etc) to be responsible for the long term growth and development.

    It's very simple math that at some point we will not be ABLE to provide this kind of assistance unless we get our economy healthy again. At some point all the bills have to be paid.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  4. T. Perkins

    The U.S government is acting as if we have disposable income sitting around burning a whole in our pockets. This is exactly what has happened to 2/3's of Americans spending money they do not have. We can not continue to spend, give and support everyone in this world. If Americans want to give their savings to another country – great! Our government needs to stop the open end handouts and tell everyone we are here to help, but not by ourselves. Is the UN controlling equal financial allocations from all countries from around the world when these natural disasters hit? What countries came to our doors with supplies, helicopters, 747's full of food, water and millions of dollars to rebuild our infrastructures after Katrina and 9/11? Very few! We are loosing our respect from the world because we can't control our spending, our debt and the corruption of our internal government. Our government needs to say "NO" to bailouts and "YES" to border protection. We are spread thin and we may soon be asking for food and water from those that have received it from us. Strengthen our country by tightening our government's belt, lower our huge deficit, continue to reward Americans for reducing the dependency for foreign oil, use more special operations teams to control terrorism and begin flexing our good faith and freedom by giving helpless countries the chance to build or rebuild with their own people and resources. Money shouldn't always be the solution.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  5. Elizabeth

    Charity/giving/sharing are not a zero sum game. We can care about ourselves and Haiti. There is enough, if only everyone would share.

    The real problem isn't a lack of resources but a lack of will.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  6. Trish

    Yes! Nailed it. A compassionate, reasonable response to the crushing problems in Haiti yet stating our problems here are just as pressing. If our infrastructure continues to crumble, our schools fail, our cities shut down, who will be able to come to the aid of the likes of those suffering as they are in Haiti? The U.S. must put its own house in order. Doing so will only help us all in long run.

    January 25, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  7. Auto Girl

    Totally agree!! Charity starts at home!

    January 25, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  8. Samantha

    Thank you for being bold and brave enough to speak the truth. We can't rescue every nation in the world, when we're not even strong (or smart?) enough to heal our own communities. And the suggestion of the smarmy banks giving some of their hard-stolen dollars to Haiti? Brilliant.

    January 25, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  9. Mary Roszel

    I believe that we should be doing more for the hungary, homeless, under-educated, jobless, and unhealthy people in this country, but they just don't get the same attention as those who do when a big disaster strikes some place in the world. Americans are great. They want to help everyone who is in trouble, but it just doesn't grab our attention unless it is a big news story of a disaster. We send huge amounts of resources and people to help. The "stars" of hollywood and music industry even put on a big fundraiser. Maybe a TV news program could be put together on these problems in this country so that we can all join together and help.

    January 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  10. Veronica

    I understand well your opinion for America to sort out its own financial woes and short-comings. Yes, the nation is hurting for organization with health care, joblessness, and the loss of homes. My family is one of many that has been affected the earthquake in Haiti, so for as long as the US and other nations are able to help, I will be ever grateful.

    January 25, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  11. Conserve' for USA

    People keep saying democracy doesn't work. We need to change our country to be more like those of Socialists.

    Why is it, the United States has given over 700 million dollars to Haiti, but a country like China who has bought up our outstanding loans, only donated 8 million?

    Our country is that bad, that some want to change it like China? How about those who want our country to be more like other countries, why don't you move and leave our country the way it is?

    January 25, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  12. Liz

    I am sorry for what is happening in Haiti, but I am at a loss to explain why they are more important than our own people. I am not saying we should not give to or help them, obviously, but what of our own citizens? I do not remember this much concern for New Orleans when Katrina hit, this outpouring of help, this many TV stations...at one time...broadcasting a telethon. I live in Detroit, been here all my life, and I know how the people here, and in other distressed cities, have needed help for years and years. Why is there money available for Haiti but not for US cities? I'm not talking handouts, I'm talking about saving lives. I just don't get it.

    January 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  13. Su from Fort Lee, NJ

    I don't think it is time to do an analysis of comparison of suffering. I think we can all agree that devastation is just that: devastating. I think Mr. Gerwin is correct in asserting that we need to take care of ourselves first before we think of others. That's from a government and policymaker's point of view. Our government needs to focus on domestic policy before thinking of international BUT the majority of funds and outpouring of aid is from INDIVIDUALS who can see beyond their own suffering and pain to WANT to help others worse off. Yes, there are Americans who are homeless, unemployed and with no medical insurance. But at the same time, there ARE ways to survive here in American soil. There is food stamps, medicaid, and ER centers across the nation that would accept anyone in dire medical situations. The Americans still have the most important tie that keeps them hopeful and strong; the FAMILY support system. No natural disaster has torn them apart like it has in Haiti. There are no children and seniors abandoned by family because they perished or because the family member can no longer provide for them. These are the people who are truly suffering and in need. And IF individuals, corporations and charities want and continue to support those in Haiti, then I commend them all and hope that by helping to lessen their far traumatic and dire situation, we can say to ourselves that our situation is not nearly as hopeless...

    January 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  14. Almetris

    It is in the strategic interest of the United States to have a good neighborhood. When it is all tallied up, foreign aid by our government is not what is messing up America.

    America has lots of problems, and America is going bankrupt, but it is certainly not because of too much foreign aid. Our final demise will be at the hands of two fiscal monsters: old folks (social security, medicare) and the Department of Defense. When you think of waste, think of grandma and a well-dressed man from Lockheed Martin.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  15. michelle

    I don't agree with tihs at all. Yes we have our own issues, but the people of Hait, especially those poor children need our help.
    Saying we should turn our backs on those poor children is cruel and heartless.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Dave

    Lets rebuild Haiti, so we can loose more jobs to outsourcing in the future to countries like Haiti, that the United States help build or rebuild. Keep the money here. Help us here! How about rebuilding some cities in the US first.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  17. Think about it!

    Interesting, this is exactly what some of us were suggesting, when President Bush decided to wage war on a country that never attacked us, all in the name of spreading democracy! We should have thought about our own issues then, instead of spending billions of dollars on a war that's getting us no where, really fast. Where were your concerns about our country then Anderson? If we pulled out of that war, just imagine the money we'd save. What has that war gotten us exactly?

    January 25, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  18. Kevin

    I agree, I am from Detroit. This area needs the money, I just read that the celebrity telethon last Friday raised $58 million for Haiti. What can't we send them $20 million and invest the remaining around here. The freaking Detroit school system is days from Bankruptcy...they could use some help!!!

    January 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  19. Dan G.

    While I feel a deep sadness for those affected by the disaster in Haiti, David hits the nail on the head in regards to long-term policy.

    I work in a very impoverished area of Detroit and have seen many people that WANT to work, but just cannot find jobs. I have seen people that WANT to pay their mortgage, but are unable to and ultimately are forced from their homes... homes that will then sit vacant and become run down. I have seen far too many people that want nothing more than to be productive members of society and provide for their families, but the opportunities just aren't there. What type of relief is available for these people?

    Too many Americans turn a blind eye to our vast number of domestic problems... and Detroit is at the epicenter. The residents here care a great deal about their city, but are continually discouraged and beat down by those that feel there's nothing good left in Detroit. It's rather unfortunate that we can turn so much attention to a natural disaster in Haiti, but ignore a domestic disaster created by capitalistic greed.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  20. Sara

    I agree that we need to do better helping those in the US, but how many mothers in the US have to feed their children cakes made out of dirt because they have nothing to give them and no where to go to get food. The definition of having nothing in the US is a lot different than having nothing in Haiti.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  21. Jada

    Living in Detroit, while it may be difficult or very difficult at the most is nowhere NEAR what is going on in Haiti! We have water, (one of the best water systems in the country might I add), and their situation is millions of times worse than our problems. I agree that both can be done. The truth is their situation is more dire! On the disaster scale they are at a 10 and we are at a 6 or 7. I live here and I can say their situation is dire and needs attention NOW! It's funny because while people are being indecisive about do we help? Do we not help? People are dying! I'm glad that I contribute to a worldwide disaster relief fund that actually provides RELIEF. The Dominican Watchtower Branch was there the NEXT morning after the quake with medical supplies and food. They fed 4600 people THAT day. They are sending tons of food daily we need to stop debating and just do.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  22. Kayla

    Totally agree, very well put. As someone who has lived in the Detroit area my whole life, I see what a mess it is right now, and has been for many years. Instead of getting better, each passing year only proves to be worse than the last. People here are without homes, without jobs, without healthcare, and kids can't get a decent education, which basically seals their fate to struggle just as their parents are. People in New Orleans are still struggling years after Katrina. Millions of Americans are without health insurance and therefore no (affordable) healthcare when they need it. I feel truly lucky every day that I still have my job and can afford to live – although it's paycheck to paycheck.
    It seems as though we want to create a 'good guy' image for our country, but it is backfiring. We need to fix ourselves before we can fix anyone else.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  23. hannahjane

    Glad you had the guts to write this. While Haiti deserves help from the world, the United States needs to take care of business at home before we attempt to tell the world how compassionate and caring we are. What about the places in New Orleans and Texas that remain in shambles post Katrina?

    January 25, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  24. Elizabeth Campbell


    January 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
  25. Barb

    I do not totally disagree or agree with you.

    Haiti is not our responsibility alone but it is the whole world's responsibility. Once this immediate crisis is passed and that is very simply keeping people alive. It should be placed on all the world to teach and train these people. It will require more than any one country can afford but throwing just aid or money is not going to do any good if the world does not join together and send engineers to train their men to rebuild and educate all of them as well agricultural specialists to teach them how to farm nothing will ever be accomplished. That is the only way true change can come about .

    I do not believe we need to take care of Detroit, this country should require the large banks of Wall Street to give back more than they borrowed for the bailout, it was our money they lost, not theirs. It is easy to spend if it does impacct your worth. It is the same with every governent in the world.

    New Orleans has not been fixed because all the news agencies have stopped their coverage of it. That is going on presently with Haiti. Out of sight = out of mind.

    You are a learned individual and an engineer – since you feel we should fix Detroit – have you been there to help – have you been to Haiti?

    In the end it is not going to be this or any country to fix these disasters it will people like me and others who have give. The world needs an NGO without inflated salaries that will go in and teach and train and allowed to do that work.

    I am not smart enough to know if such an organization exists today,

    And by the way, if you have credit card that gives cash back on your charges that can be donated without adding a cent to pocket or credit card, to your cost to the charity of your choice.


    January 25, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  26. Dr Kelly Sennholz

    Unfortunately, we really have some significant issues right here at home that I see on a daily basis. There are structural problems that created the size of Haiti's issues and there are structural problems that cause ours, too. Take a look around at your neighbors and find one person suffering (shouldn't be too hard) and lend a helping hand. You can do that right now. Doesn't even cost much.

    America, the Beautiful!

    January 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  27. Susan

    I can not agree with you more (and I don't always). We tend to be generous to a fault when there is a crisis somewhere, but overlook what is happening in our own backyard.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
  28. Thanhhuong thi Nguyen

    I totally agreed with Mr. Gewirtz. Because English is my second language, therefore, I can't not expressed my thought very well, maybe this is one of the reason why 90% of my opinion and thought were waiting for moderation. I am sad but understand.
    Thank you Mr. Gewirtz for speaking my mind. I'll be a homeless in the next six weeks too. I was a war refugee, I got out from VN by boat, at least now I can go back to VN by Airplane as an "Economic Refugee."
    I was busy trying to help Haiti and forgeting about my situation. Actually, I didn't. That's why I keep asking to go to Haiti to volunteer, I'll become a homeless, might as well be with the homeless Haitians. As usual, my voice could never be heard because I have none!
    Time is running out for me and I am so tired as a refugee. So exhausted as a victim fo all kind. All I wish and hope is the World could be in Peace and Joys. Maybe this could only happen in a dream? But I'll keep dreaming till the last day of my life.
    Best regard to you Mr. Gewirtz.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  29. Rick Silva

    You sir are a moron... Hope you never have to go through what the Haitian people are going through!

    January 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  30. Amy Baker

    Couldn't agree more! I was just thinking about this this morning when I heard on the radio how much money had been donated to the relief. My first thought, if we can do that for Haiti, can't we do it for ourselves?? Being from Detroit and seeing first hand how devastating life has become in our own country, why don't people donate to those in their own backyard?

    Thanks for saying out loud what so many have been thinking!!

    January 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  31. florence aferi

    I totally agree, we can't always afford to come to the aid of other countries. We have exercise a little bit of healthy selfishness. (Sometimes saying no to helping others and not feeling bad for helping ourelves).

    January 25, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  32. Derek Hollaway

    As an inner-city Detroiter who is fortunate to still have a job, I would have to agree.

    Living here isn't easy. The economic devastation that has existed long before the Haiti quakes, still continues here. I can see it every time I ride my bike to work.

    The suburbs are starting to look no different than the inner city. It is time for the US government to turn inward and take care of its own affairs.

    January 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  33. Patricia Dillon

    The idea of telling the unemployed or impoverished people that things will get better does nothing when there is no money for the basics.
    Americans share, even when we don't have it to share. That is what makes this America. What I don't understand is if we can gather all these essentials for a unfortunate event such as Haiti, why is there no help for our own.

    January 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
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