Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

July 18, 2001

Further 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.


The political 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."


The Colombian 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 neighbors.


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 the same.

Meanwhile, as Patrick Clawson and Rensselaer Lee note in their book, The 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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