Michael Gerson

CARREFOUR, Haiti -- A helicopter flight low over Port-au-Prince reveals whole neighborhoods of flat, collapsed roofs next to areas that seem barely touched. The earthquake gods are not only cruel but arbitrary. The Presidential Palace leans drunkenly. Soccer fields and other open spaces are carpeted with tarp tents, offering scant protection as the rainy season arrives.

The pilot navigates toward a white lighthouse along the coast, between the earthquake epicenter at Leogane and Port-au-Prince. On the site of a collapsed amphitheater and park, the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines has established a camp in the city of Carrefour -- a scene of beach and barbed wire, aqua sea and warships on the horizon, camouflage tents, milling Marines and chopper noise.

Carrefour is the fourth area these Marines have helped stabilize since the quake. Initially the greatest needs were order, food and medical treatment. Order came more quickly than the Marines expected. Haitians didn't require a show of force, just the knowledge that someone was in charge. With the port in ruins, supplies were delivered on four beaches by landing craft. Long-range heavy lift -- the ability to move masses of equipment, supplies and people across the world -- is a demonstration of American global influence. It may be the best definition of that influence.

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But Marine operations in Haiti have reached another stage. As I arrived at Carrefour, a Marine officer in charge of civilian relations was convening the first meeting of community activists, nongovernmental organizations and local officials -- a group that will gather every day to assess the needs of eight sectors of the city. The officer explained to me the complex Haitian class dynamics that determine local leadership. American Marines of Haitian background were speaking a rapid Creole -- one of the benefits of a multicultural military. The goal was to begin handing out food through community institutions instead of distribution sites or coupons, so Haitians could begin taking ownership of the effort. The Marines are practicing a kind of noninvasive surgery -- providing structure and security, but cultivating community institutions that must continue to stand after America leaves.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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