Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

June 28, 2000

Into a New Quagmire

The 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.

One 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.

With 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.


So 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 more.

And 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.

In 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.


Even 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.

Minnesota 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.

But 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.)


Republican 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."

Sen. 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.

The 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.


I 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 Gruening.

So 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.


I know, I know. It is a fool's errand even to hope for much more than posturing and babbling from elected officials, let alone a thoughtful approach to foreign policy that embodies a modicum of historical perspective and actual knowledge. A few voted right and that's probably the best we can expect. Sen. Gorton offered a reasonably thoughtful note of caution. But none offered either a searching and knowledgeable to-the-point critique of Clinton policy or an alternative vision to the emerging paradigm of the Sole Remaining Superpower as the world's 911 patrol.

To be sure, that is in part because the Clinton administration has offered no particular plan beyond sending help, helicopters and lots of money and hoping for the best. There have been halfhearted (and probably completely unrealistic) promises that U.S. money, advisers and resources will only be used to fight the drug war, not to participate in the current phase of the Colombian civil war that has been waged for decades.

Even this promise was delivered with a wink and a nod, however. None of the few in the administration or the military who have anything resembling a realistic notion of what things are like on the ground in Colombia can possibly believe that involvement in the drug war doesn't mean involvement in the civil war. Indeed, involvement in the civil war might well be the real goal of some administration and military planners and the rhetoric about the drug war merely the cover. It is hardly uncommon in the Imperial City to want to prop up existing governments who are experiencing a spot of instability usually accompanied by an inexhaustible and thoroughly unjustified confidence in the ability of the United States government to be the savior.

One might have hoped that some discussion of the possible long-range implications of this commitment of taxpayers' money and military personnel would have been a conspicuous part of the discussion (one could hardly call it a debate yet) over Colombian policy. But there wasn't even enough senatorial firepower to fuel a serious effort to reject the aid package on its merits. Instead, those with doubts had to gussy up their doubts with alternative and politically attractive (to certain constituencies) ways to spend the money.

We certainly have a lot of work to do. Let's hope we can get at least some of it done before the body bags start coming home in quantity.

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