Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

March 7, 2001

Decision Time in Colombia?

The news from Colombia early this week was anything but encouraging. Over the weekend leftist guerrillas killed six people and kidnapped several others. Bomb attacks in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, leveled buildings near a military base and injured three people. A bomb exploded Sunday in Cartagena, a popular tourist spot on the Caribbean coast.

Then on Monday least 24 people were killed in clashes between leftist guerrillas (the FARC of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and paramilitaries who may or may not be affiliated with the Colombian military, near the village of El Prodigio, about 45 miles south of Medellin. The outlawed paramilitary Self Defense Forces (AUC) had warned earlier Monday that they are prepared "to die or conquer" in an effort to prevent Colombian President Andres Pastrana from turning over control of a 1500-square mile area in northern Colombia to a second rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).


Last week President Pastrana was in Washington asking President Bush to pledge more aid to Colombia in addition to the $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to fight against coca production, manufacturing and smuggling in and out of Colombia, the illicit trade that finances much of the violence that wracks the country.

The administration is said to be considering aid to Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, neighbors of Colombia whose governments had previously expressed doubt about American involvement in Colombia’s drug wars --which is supposed to be separate from but is inextricably linked to the 40-year civil war the country has endured.

There was some confusion last week over whether Pastrana had asked Bush to send a U.S. representative to meetings scheduled for this week between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. The FARC and the government have been performing an elaborate peace-talk dance that might involve a truce in exchange for a semi-permanent arrangement whereby FARC control over about a third of the southern part of the country might become formalized. The FARC is said to want the United States involved in peace talks, and perhaps as a guarantor of a cease-fire later on.

Pastrana has denied making a request to have the United States "participate directly on the negotiating table," but rumors were rife that Pastrana asked Bush for some kind of US involvement and Bush turned him down. The reason given is that the US has no business dealing with guerilla revolutionaries directly, and that the Clinton administration had imposed a prohibition on direct contacts with the FARC following the killing of three Americans in 1999.


Before the involvement begun by the Clinton administration is so intense that it becomes a matter of not wanting to look as if the invincible United States is backing down, the Bush administration should take a hard-nosed, skeptical look at US intervention in Colombia. One can understand empathy and a desire to help a country facing such a wrenching and violent struggle. But the likelihood of playing a constructive role is so low and the cost of trying and failing could be so high that prudence would suggest ending the US commitment in Colombia.

The commitment under the Clinton watch was engineered largely by former US "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey, who also had headed the US southern command in Latin America when he was still a general in the Army. One might understand Gen. McCaffrey’s fond hope that a resolute military commitment by the United States could end or at least reduce Colombia’s role as a supplier of cocaine. But it seems a fond hope at best. One hates to contemplate the level of money, material and (eventually) US personnel it would take to make a serious dent in a country marked by rugged mountain ranges and vast expanses where the central government has no effective control. And if coca production were substantially reduced in Colombia it would re-emerge – perhaps in neighboring countries, perhaps in some African countries – as long as the demand for cocaine in the United States and Western Europe persists.


The current civil war in Colombia has its roots in the 1950s, when a 10-year war called "La Violencia" followed the split of the two main parties. The conflict simmered at a low level for years, then gained new energy in the 1980s when Colombia emerged as a leading producer of coca and cocaine. Leftist guerillas and then rightist paramilitaries offered to protect cocaine traffickers for a share of the profits, and the drug-trade money has made it possible for all sides to escalate the violence.

The notion that the United States can help the Colombian government eradicate cocaine trafficking without becoming embroiled in the ongoing civil war is naïve at best. The US might hope to play a strictly advisory role, but US forces are more likely to be drawn in or targeted the longer the United States is an active player.


Confusion over Colombia is beginning to capture attention in Washington at the same time that, according to the intelligence Web site Stratfor.com and other sources, the Pentagon is in the midst of an internal review of American defense strategy.

Stratfor says that the new US strategy that is likely to emerge from this reassessment will involve "a dramatic reduction in US troops deployed overseas while increasing the use of technologies that can monitor and strike adversaries from long distances. Such a historic shift would reduce the vulnerability of US forces to attack and lower the profile of a seemingly imperial military presence."

It would be irony indeed if the conflict and commitment in Colombia were to be increased at a time when the United States is rethinking its grand strategy and pulling US troops back from overseas postings elsewhere. We can only hope that while Andrew Marshall, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the internal "think tank" assigned to deliver a report on defense restructuring next month, is taking Colombia and its trouble into account when rethinking US commitments overseas.


To some extent, of course, having the Pentagon rethink US defense commitments is putting the cart before the horse. This country’s defense policy should flow from its overall foreign policy philosophy, not the other way around. If the administration is thinking about altering US foreign policy to be less interventionist, less imperial, less eager to be involved in the inevitable conflicts that will emerge and erupt in even a relatively peaceful world, then a defense policy in keeping with the larger foreign-policy goals of the United States can be designed.

Until those larger policy decisions are made, it is somewhat silly to make decisions about what kind of defense is needed. And there is a danger that defense commitments or decisions made with the needs of capabilities of the military foremost will end up driving foreign policy – that we will have the foreign policy our military capabilities dictate rather than the military our foreign policy demands.


In the meantime, the situation in Colombia could spiral out of control in a way that might seem to demand more aggressive US intervention unless Washington changes its philosophy. If death or violence strike US personnel in Colombia – the authorities assure us no US citizens are in a combat role but the battle lines are porous and permeable – the United States might find itself committed to a larger-scale intervention for reasons of pride or maintenance of prestige.

It is unlikely the US government will take the most sensible step toward reducing violence in Colombia and end its war on drugs. That would be the most effective way to take much of the profit out of the trade and a good deal of the money- and weapon-driven steam out of the civil war.

Given the low likelihood that the US will be so sensible, however, it should think long and hard before increasing a commitment to a conflict that must eventually be settled by those participating in it. It is tempting to imagine that the sole remaining superpower can do pretty much whatever it wants in the world, stepping in like a benevolent big brother to settle the disputes and problems of nations of lesser stature. But that kind of hubris – even in the Brave New World order – is more likely to lead to disappointment and tragedy than peace in Colombia.

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