a New Quagmire
worst news of the week from a substantive perspective was the U.S.
Senate's approval of the vast bulk of the Clinton administration's
request for more money to conduct the misbegotten and unwinnable
"drug war" in Colombia. The worst news from the perspective
of what it says about our political culture and its watchfulness
over the interests of Americans who would rather not be slaughtered
in pointless battle is that there was so little real discussion
of the issue, in the Senate itself, in the media, or (as nearly
as I could tell) among the American people.
could argue that this reflects a commendable sense of realism among
Americans. Despite a few elected politicians willing to dissent,
most of us knew that when the rubber met the road our elected officials
would approve this particular foreign adventure in a slam-dunk.
It carries the imprimatur of the Holy War on Drugs, after all, and
despite some evidence (see the huge majorities willing to support
the medical use of marijuana despite hysterical advice from those
who consider themselves our betters) of disillusionment, politicians
now seem to consider questioning the crusade as the new Third Rail
of American politics.
anticipated federal budget surpluses expected to be in the trillions
over the next decade, $1.3 billion (or $1.7 billion, the amount
the House passed) over two years doesn't seem like a lot of money.
Yet it does seem as if it should be enough to help the brave Colombian
government get a handle on the nasty depredations of the nasty narcotraffickers.
And if it isn't, as the United States has done in a few other countries,
we can always pull out.
voting for this little bit of imperialist stability-mongering in
our own hemisphere seemed like a no-lose situation to most of those
who get their conventional wisdom from inside the Beltway. And in
the short run it probably was. It is unlikely that any of the senators
who voted for this extraordinary waste of life and treasure will
pay a political price in this election year or maybe even in the
next one. The antiwar movement, such as it is, is relatively small
(as it always is when there is no active war generating body bags)
and not especially well organized except in cyberspace. The major
"mainstream" media have ignored it, marginalizing it even
even if things do start going badly over the next few years, the
first instinct of most Americans will be to rally around whatever
ineffectual boob occupies the Oval Office next year, at least during
the beginning of troubled times. A sustained series of setbacks,
if covered as such (which they probably won't be at first) might
eventually lead to the reconstitution of a mass antiwar movement
able to impact the political system at the only point of entry most
elected politicians care about the ballot box. But even if the drug
war in Colombia goes as badly as some of us expect, the full political
impact won't be felt for years.
effect, then, a politician voting for this particular arrogant boondoggle
would be unlikely to pay a political price for some time. Few politicians
have a psychological time horizon that extends beyond the two-year
election cycle. So foolishness prevailed, as most Americans knew
it would. Few Americans really think they could have changed that
equation, so few got involved.
so, it was somewhat surprising just how large the margins were in
the Senate. We can almost count the consistent questioners of this
foolish policy on one hand.
Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone's amendment to shift $225 million
in military aid funding to domestic drug treatment programs pulled
only 11 votes in the Senate. Sure, it was a largely cosmetic gesture
on behalf of a policy that, while touted as a respectable alternative
by some who question the drug war but are too conventional in their
approach to question it at the roots, is unlikely to end drug abuse
or even reduce it much, especially if it's run by government. On
the other hand, spending more money on drug treatment programs would
still be less harmful than most of what the government does.
Wellstone's amendment attracted only two Republican votes, those
of Sens. Rod Grams of Minnesota and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
(The Democrats who went for it were Boxer, CA, Byrd, WV, Dorgan,
ND, Feingold, WI, Harkin, IA, Leahy, VT, Mikulski, MD, Murray (WA)
and, of course, Wellstone himself.)
Sen. Slade Gorton offered some of the best rhetoric of the day,
but one might question the depth of his commitment, since he failed
to support the Wellstone amendment. "The capacity of this body
for self-delusion appears to this senator to be unlimited,"
said Sen. Gorton. "There has been no consideration of the consequences,
cost and length of involvement. The bill says, let's get into war
now and justify it later."
Gorton did have an amendment of his own, to reduce the Colombian
aid package to "only" $200 million and use the rest of
the money to ready for the mom-and-apple-pie? pay down the national
debt. This attracted 19 votes, mostly from Republicans.
only Democrats to support it were Barbara Boxer (CA), Tom Harkin
(IA), Herb Kohl (WI), Pat Leahy (VT), Barbara Mikulski (MD), and
Patty Murray (WA). In addition to Sen. Gorton, Republicans Wayne
Allard (CO), Susan Collins (ME), Larry Craig (ID), Michael Enzi
(WY), Peter Fitzgerald (IL), Phil Gramm (TX), Rod Grams (MN), Jud
Gregg (NH), Asa Hutchinson (AR), Arlen Specter (PA), and Craig Thomas
(WY) voted for the amendment.
mention all these names because this rag-tag bunch seems to constitute
the closest thing we have in the Senate to a war-questioning caucus
and we might as well acknowledge them. And only a handful Boxer,
Grams, Harkin, Leahy, Mikulski, Murray and Specter voted for both
modestly antiwar amendments. These seven stalwarts are mostly old-line
(except Grams and maybe Specter) liberals who may remember Vietnam
and may have a trace of a war-questioning gene in their political
make-up. They are far from being the Bulls of the Senate; indeed
(again with the conceivable exception of Specter) they command almost
no substantial power or influence in the world's greatest deliberative
body. I see none with the personal stature of a Wayne Morse or Ernest
if there is to be serious questioning of the Colombian drug war
subsidies (not to mention the handsome windfall profits of two US
helicopter manufacturers) it will probably have to come from outside
the body of elected politicians. That's hardly a new development
antiwar movements hardly ever originate inside the system. If a
Colombian antiwar movement does develop, eventually the politicians
will tag along and posture as visionary leaders, of course. But
it would hardly be prudent to count on any of them for real leadership.