into the Colombian Morass
The House of Representatives
on Thursday will give as much consideration as it is likely to give
this year to the ongoing US involvement in Colombia's civil war
and cocaine manufacturing and trafficking crisis. At issue will
be the government's foreign operations budget, which contains some
$676 million for Colombian operations (another $80 million or so
is expected to be included in a defense supplemental appropriation
later this summer).
Unfortunately, it is most unlikely that the House will reject
the money for Plan Colombia, which the Bush administration has expanded
into the Andean Initiative. However, as Eleanor Starmer of the Latin
America Working Group in Washington told me, there has been more
discussion of the foolishness of the intervention into Colombian
politics and civil life this year than there was last year. A couple
of amendments to trim back or alter the scope of the aid will be
offered. There is just a chance that one of them will pass.
dynamic is kind of interesting. Last year, when the Clinton administration
was proposing a $1.3 billion down payment to cover American meddling
(and a bunch of helicopters and other equipment for the human-rights-impaired
Colombian military), most Democrats went along and a few Republicans
actually questioned the idea fairly aggressively.
Now that a Republican is in the White House and the Clinton
plan has been adopted and expanded, however, the partisan lineup
is rather different. In subcommittee votes testing amendments to
be offered on the floor, the lineup was almost entirely on party
lines, with Democrats voting against the administration and Republicans
voting against any changes. While many Republicans still have the
same doubts about the misbegotten intervention that they had last
year, hardly any of them are willing to speak up. A few will have
to vote for amendments offered by Democrats if they want to send
a message to the administration. It will be interesting to see how
many of them do so.
It is also interesting that hardly anybody is even trying to
argue that the expenditure of a bunch of money in Colombia is likely
to have a huge impact on the drug trade, on the ongoing civil war
and the disruption it continues to cause in Colombia, or on the
rebuilding of something resembling a civil society in Colombia.
"The best proponents can say is that the plan hasn't been given
enough time to work or even to evaluate properly," Eleanor Starmer
told me. "Nobody even tries to contend that it is really working
well and deserves more funding based on a record of success."
CREATING A QUAGMIRE
mission, begun with a $1.3 billion commitment under former President
Clinton, is as wasteful and misbegotten a program as can be imagined,
the single foreign adventure most likely to get the United States
involved in a long-term Vietnam-style morass. It is billed as a
decisive encounter in the long-running War on Drugs, but it also
amounts to an intervention in a long-running civil war that has
serious implications for most of Colombia's neighbors.
As I and others have explained before in some detail, a civil
war has been carried on in Colombia (which is divided geographically
into three distinct regions, only one of which the government effectively
controls, with numerous inaccessible spots) at a relatively low
level since the 1950s. The civil war heated up in the 1990s, ironically
enough after the Medellin and then the Cali cartels were busted
up and decentralized.
The decentralization of the drug trade gave the guerrillas
and the right-wing paramilitaries the opportunity to fatten their
coffers and finance their activities at a higher level by getting
involved in the drug trade sometimes by protecting growers
and traffickers, sometimes by more direct involvement. Then "drug
czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a former commander of the southern military
district, pushed the Clinton administration into a renewed commitment
to military aid as the key anti-drug activity in Colombia.
A few proponents might have actually believed it would diminish
the cocaine trade. Some others saw it as a way to give the Colombia
government some tangible help to defeat the guerrillas. And some
proponents probably see it as just a necessary activity to keep
the US involved in South America, projecting power and influence
because that's what sole superpowers are supposed to do.
Most of the surrounding countries objected to the plan, especially
Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. So the plan was altered to include
payoffs, er, compensation for collateral damage to most of Colombia's
HINTS OF DISSENT
During the presidential
campaign candidate George W. Bush sometimes hinted that his administration
would be willing to rethink ill-advised commitments to interventions
into conflicts in other countries. Once in office, however, the
Bush team seems to have bought into the Colombian mess with renewed
but rationally inexplicable vigor.
The promised reassessment of the American position in the world
and of the interventions to which the previous administration had
over-committed this country shows no evidence of having taken more
than five minutes or so before the foolish old commitments were
rubber-stamped or expanded.
As Richard Lowry,
editor of the conservative magazine National Review put it
in a thoughtful article in the July 9 issue (unfortunately not available
on the magazine's Web site), "In the drug war, the victories never
end, because they never last." Between 1995 and 2000 U.S.-assisted
coca eradication efforts reduced the number of acres under coca
cultivation in Bolivia and Perubut production doubled in Colombia
and the total amount produced in the Andean region remained about
Meanwhile, as Patrick Clawson and Rensselaer Lee note in their
Andean Cocaine Industry, Weakening the Colombian cartels,
seizing 760 tons of cocaine and reducing cultivation in Peru and
Bolivia "have had no discernible effect on the underlying traffic
infrastructure and on the availability of the drug domestically."
In fact, the authors say, the street price of cocaine in the US
fell 37 percent between 1990 and 1996, a period of intensive eradication
and enforcement activity.
So now the US wants to renew and redouble efforts to help eradicate
cultivation in Colombia (and maybe shoot down a few missionaries
who have the effrontery to fly private airplanes in the region while
they're at it). The hope, sold to a gullible public in the face
of all experience with similar efforts, is that more cultivation
will not pop up elsewhere.
It won't work. The very illegality of certain drugs makes the
trade so lucrative that eradication, confiscation and even occasional
incarceration are viewed by big-time traffickers as simply costs
of doing business. Put one trafficker in jail and ten more will
rush to fill the spot. To imagine otherwise is to imagine that if
you offered a $100 million prize in a lottery nobody would try to
buy a ticket.
In short, Plan Colombia, which the Bush administration has
expanded into the Andean Initiative, is not just an enormous waste
of money, but taxpayers' money spent to buy more trouble for the
United States. It should be ended immediately.
Unfortunately, while there is more skepticism than last year,
Congress isn't ready for that yet. Eleanor Starmer of the Latin
America Working Group told me that Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi
of San Francisco will offer an amendment to cut the military component
of the Colombian aid and divert it to and international aid programs
aimed at impoverished women. Democratic Rep. Steven Rothman of New
Jersey will offer an amendment to end the aerial fumigation program,
which kills food crops as well as coca patches.
Neither of these amendments is the bold refusal to fund foolishness
Congress should display. But either of them would send a message
to the administration that many Americans are skeptical about the
Colombian adventure and will be watching it closely.
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