Ignored in Campaign
the troubles in the Middle East consuming so much of the mediaís
short attention span (destroying any semblance of belief that the
West can impose a "peace process" on the area but hardly
destroying diplomatic delusions) hardly any attention is being paid
to Colombia. The Republicans (with the honorable exception of Rep.
Tom Campbell, running a quixotic campaign against California Democratic
Sen. Dianne Feinstein) have not chosen to make the Clintonian Plan
Colombia an election-year issue. And aside from an occasional dispatch
from a Latin American correspondent, the news media arenít paying
even apart from that fact that, as Tom Campbell told us in recent
editorial board meeting, "I donít know of any American who
seriously believes we can solve Americaís drug problem by fighting
a foreign war," the adventure is going badly. It avoids being
an election-time issue mainly through the collusion of leading Democrats
sad thing is that it is almost solely an American delusion although
the Colombian government can hardly be expected to say "no"
when the deluded Yanquis insist on sending money and helicopters.
But even the Colombians have doubts. Colombian President Andres
Pastrana had in mind not just $1.3 billion in helicopters and advisers
from the Americans, but a comprehensive development plan in the
$7 billion range, with much of the money to come from European countries.
But the European leaders are giving him the cold shoulder, and it
looks as if heís going to be stuck as an American pawn or at least
heíll be perceived that way.
The perception hasnít done him a lot
of good. The ruling national party lost almost all the gubernatorial
and mayoral races held in two provinces this week. Despite calls
from Pastrana for a massive turnout as a symbol of rejection of
violence, about 60 percent of eligible voters abstained.
none of Colombiaís neighbors is enthusiastic about the Americanization
of the long-running Colombian civil war, sold to gullible Americans
as a foray in the Holy War on Drugs. U.S. Defense Secretary William
Cohen had to travel to Latin America week before last to assure
defense ministers in Latin American countries that Plan Colombia
really really really wonít turn into another Vietnam. But defense
ministers in countries near Colombia were skeptical. Even though
the US incursion has just begun, they are already feeling ill effects.
bunch of oil workers, including five Americans, were kidnapped in
Ecuador a few weeks ago, and hardly anybody believes it was not
the Colombian FARC forces that did it, pushed in part by the American
intervention. Venezuelan military forces recently pursued some alleged
drug traffickers across the border into Colombia, from which they
are said to be operating. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is openly
worrying that the US intervention into Colombia will leader to a
Vietnam the rationale was that Vietnamís neighbors would be overthrown
like dominoes if the United States didnít fight that war. In Colombia
it is precisely the US intervention that is creating the threat
of conflict spilling over into neighboring countries.
quaint of you to ask," Ted Carpenter, head of foreign policy
studies for the libertarian Cato Institute
replied when I asked him whether the US Constitution contemplated
or authorizes a military adventure like Plan Colombia "I canít
see where the authority can be found to commit military hardware
and training personnel, whether to fight drug traffickers or battle
left-wing guerrillas, in Colombia without a declaration of war or
even a finding of national emergency. But I suppose itís no more
unconstitutional than a great deal of what the US government has
done in foreign policy in the last few years."
nobody in the federal government or at least nobody in a
policy-making role takes the constitution seriously, the
question becomes whether Plan Colombia, under which the United States
is sending $1.3 billion in helicopters and other military equipment,
along with US military training personnel, to Colombia to fight
drug traffickers can work. Is such a commitment likely to break
the power of Colombian coca growers or cocaine traffickers and/or
reduce the quantities of illicit cocaine shipped to the United States
and Europe? How will we know if it has been effective? What benchmarks
of success have been posted? Is there a Plan B if the first wave
of aid doesnít achieve results?
most important, if the intervention in Colombia does not succeed,
either in reducing drug trafficking or in stabilizing the Colombian
regime or in stabilizing the region by reducing left-wing guerrilla
power, what will the American response be? Will we admit that it
wasnít a very good idea, or will we redouble our efforts until the
United States finds itself in a quagmire that could make Somalia
or Kosovo or Bosnia or even Vietnam? look like a picnic?
MUCH LIKE VIETNAM?
officials disparage any comparison to Vietnam. The United States
will only supply equipment and training, they aver. The U.S.-provided
equipment will only be available for the battle against drug traffickers,
not to have an influence on the ongoing civil wars that have raged
in Colombia for most of this century. US advisers will not be allowed
to participate directly in military or quasi-military activities,
and there will be a ceiling on the number of US advisers who can
be in Colombia at any given time.
But that doesnít answer the question of how the United States will
know when its objectives are achieved or even what those objectives
are. Most military commanders prefer to have specific objectives
when they are asked to put their troops into harmís way.
Ho Tree, a military historian who is the Colombia expert for the
generally left-wing Institute for Policy Studies has studied Vietnam
and sees troubling parallels. "In Vietnam the objectives kept
shifting," he told me this week. "Was the objective to
take Hanoi, simply stop the Viet Cong or to beef up the South Vietnamese
government? In Colombia, will US policymakers be satisfied if drug
production and trafficking is reduced by 50 percent, or would such
an accomplishment be viewed as only a partial success requiring
escalation? Nobody can tell us what would signal success."
Nadelmann, who before becoming executive director of the Lindesmith
Center (which promotes drug policy reform) taught international
relations at Princeton, thinks that from the standpoint of controlling
cocaine trafficking the policy is more farce than well-thought-out
plan. "In the first place, because of Colombiaís terrain and
history, it is unlikely to succeed in stopping coca farming,"
he told me. "Even if it achieves that objective, plenty of
cocaine is in storage in various places to keep the market supplied
for several years. And if coca farming is reduced in Colombia, it
will pop up elsewhere, whether in Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama or
elsewhere, creating serious destabilization in countries that are
already politically fragile."
Ho Tree thinks coca growing could spring up in even more far-flung
places in the unlikely even it is effectively suppressed in Colombia.
"Remember," he told me, "1.2 billion people in the
world live on less than a dollar a day. Could some of those be seduced
by traffickers to grow coca? Personally, I think sub-Saharan Africa
is fertile ground agriculturally, economically and politically to
take up the slack if Plan Colombia actually works."
DID WE GET INTO THIS MESS?
if the aid plan to Colombia is unlikely to stop cocaine production
or drug trafficking and might even destabilize the region, why did
the administration push it and Congress although with some dissent
and grumbling approve it.
Washington-based legal publication Legal Times has done several
stories documenting the fact that two helicopter companies have
lobbied hard for a Colombian intervention. It also seems to be the
case that "drug czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was in
charge of the US militaryís Southern Command before retiring from
the military, has had a disproportionate amount of influence in
the decision-making process. Gen. McCaffrey is a persuasive and
impressive personality and may be presumed to have special expertise
about Latin America to go along with his commitment to reduce the
flow of illegal drugs.
administration officials promise solemnly that US aid is intended
only to fight drugs, it is difficult to see how the effort can be
divorced from the ongoing civil conflicts in Colombia. The main
leftist guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)
has found it convenient and lucrative to offer protection to coca
farmers and traffickers. Paramilitary groups organized originally
to protect farmers and other locals from guerrillas are also implicated
in the drug trade. The drug trade has become tightly interwoven
into conflicts that have plagued Colombia (with various degrees
of intensity and violence) at least since 1948 and arguably for
ARE THE POLITICIANS?
Colombian adventure has opened some doors on Capitol Hill in the
sense that it has made it easier for critics to discuss the larger
issue of the drug war more openly without being laughed out of the
place. The Black Caucus is on the verge of open revolt on the drug
war. Rep. John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary
Committee, was a surprise speaker on "drug policy day"
at the Shadow Convention in Los Angeles and is introducing omnibus
legislation to reform mandatory minimum sentencing, eliminate the
sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses,
and increase treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
most politicians still shy away from criticizing the drug war or
associating with drug war critics. So the Colombian incursion is
going forward and is unlikely to be cut back Indeed, itís likely
to become more costly and extensive unless Americans see body bags.
The fact that it isnít an election-year issue is a tribute to the
hollowness of the American political process.