August 7, 2000


In his frenzied search for some kind of foreign policy legacy, a coup pulled off on the world stage, President Clinton may have failed in the Middle East – but succeeded in Colombia, albeit not in the way he intended. He is headed there at the end of August, where he will meet for a few hours with government officials and speak to a group of businessmen, and then fly right out as fast as he can. According to a BBC report, "He will go down and back on the same day. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an overnight stay was ruled out for security reasons." This ought to tell us everything we need to know about why the US ought not to get dragged in to Colombia's three-sided civil war, a hundred-year-old conflict that is now reaching its bloody and completely unpredictable climax. For nothing is secure in Colombia, not even the commander-in-chief of the mightiest armed forces in the world. With one of the highest crime rates on record, that anarchic land is seemingly untamable – but that is really our mission there, in spite of all the drug war rhetoric. To tame the wilderness, to bring order, to make it a place where the President of the United States could indeed stay overnight – perhaps with a bevy of native Lewinskies to entertain him for the evening, as befits a visiting monarch – without fear of being kidnapped by Colombian desperadoes. Kidnapping is the second most popular sport in Colombia, next to soccer (or futbol, or whatever it is they call it), and I wonder if the big donors would come through with Clinton's ransom, just one last time. No wonder he's scared to stay overnight: no need to take any unnecessary chances.


Before we go any further into this column, let's rip the "drug war" mask off this escalating disaster: To begin with, there are lots of places where the drug trade is entrenched, starting with right here in the good old USA. The American Midwest is increasingly the center of a thriving trade in methamphetamine – one of the most dangerous and debilitating drugs in the pharmaceutical department of your local black market. There are plenty of other countries – including one just south of the Rio Grande – where the "drug lords," buying off politicians left and right, have become entrenched. South Asia springs to mind, with its opium fields guarded by rebel separatist factions and minority ethnic armies: Burma, the legendary kingdom of the original "drug lords," seems to have been forgotten in all this. What about Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others who produce, refine, and transport a steady stream of illegal drugs to US consumers? Will we intervene on such a massive scale in all these places – and is that one by one, or all at once?


A real international crusade to eliminate the drug trade would have to mean a return to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia – but naturally this administration (or any likely successor) would never even consider such a futile crusade. No, for some reason the leaders of both major parties have their hearts set on Colombia. For some unfathomable motive, the most corrupt and dishonest president in all of American history – who is rumored to have a bit of a drug history of his own – is now bound and determined to fight the menace of "illicit" narcotics on the streets of American cities. Not, as you might imagine, by sweeping American drug dealers off the streets, but by invading the streets and villages of a foreign country. Got that?


It makes perfect sense, from a Clintonian point of view – that is, if you're used to lying to yourself and the nation. It is always easier to find a foreign scapegoat for homegrown social ills than to face the inner demons that bedevil us all. American leaders look overseas for the enemy – everywhere except in the mirror. But do we really expect Bill Clinton – who, after disgracing his office and demeaning the nation, will naturally go to work for Hollywood – to do that?


Why pick on Colombia, when so many other countries are involved in the drug trade? The reason is that the discovery of fresh oil fields and the lucrative profits enjoyed by Occidental Oil – working in tandem with the state-owned Colombian oil monopoly – make this troubled nation a plum ready for the picking. The recent investments made by AOL-Time-Warner in the Colombian telecommunications infrastructure is a key link in the mega-company's plans to rope all of South America's rising internet community into its cybernetic empire. Another key corporate connection is Al Gore's longstanding links to the Occidental Petroleum Corp., one of the biggest investors in Colombia's wildcat oil market. Was it synchronicity at work when Occidental declared "force majeure" at one of Colombia's largest oil fields the day before Clinton announced his visit? Perhaps it was sheer coincidence: then again, perhaps not.


As the Reuters story pointed out, "Earlier this year, Occidental chiefs lobbied hard for the U.S. government to press ahead with a pledge to hand over a record aid package to Colombia to help it fight drug-traffickers and Communist guerrillas," and it was indeed one of several Marxist rebel groups who have bombed the same Occidental pipeline over forty times since it started pumping crude to the tune of 105,000 barrels a day. The most recent attack, launched a few days ago, shut the pipeline down, and Occidental is yelping. As the Reuters report points out, in 1997 "the first declaration of force majeure at Cano Limon [oil field in Colombia] sent a shudder through US markets and energy officials since it was the starkest indication until that time of the risk posed by Colombia's warring rebel factions against the oil industry." The immediate effect of the rebel offensive on the cost of oil in the US is unclear, but with skyrocketing gas prices an issue in the presidential race – and Gore having the chutzpah to characterize Dubya as Big Oil's sock-puppet – the Clinton camp cannot afford to do nothing. Besides, BP Amoco, which gave $1 million to put on this year's Democratic national convention, has a substantial interest in Colombia as well as the politically-connected Occidental. Thus the panicked and hurriedly-planned Colombian excursion to show the flag and cheer up the troops. . . . .


Yes, the troops, American troops, 83 of them so far, but as the war escalates their numbers will increase: officially, they are called "trainers" – just as they were called "advisors" in that other jungled quagmire, Vietnam. They arrived last week, just as Clinton was getting ready to announce his trip – and Occidental was handing out the bad news to its investors and shareholders. What is billed as a training center for the "anti-drug battalion" of the Colombian police is, in reality, an anti-guerrilla base of operations commanded by the US military in direct violation of Colombian sovereignty. Situated in the northern part of the country, about forty miles from the city of Florencia, the base is considered secure in spite of its proximity to rebel-held territory, which is less than fifteen minutes away. The Los Angeles Times cites a national security expert in Bogota as saying that "the US aid is extremely important for the morale of the Colombian army. . . .After years of US support for the police instead of the armed forces, with the new aid package, he said, 'they feel like they have their dad back.'" What a touching family reunion – but is this the kind of paternity claim that the US government wants to acknowledge and accept?


This same Colombian army has been accused of massive human rights violations, is rife with corruption, and is in many cases allied with right-wing "paramilitary" units who have entered the field against the leftist guerrillas. President Andres Pastrana's center-left government has imposed IMF-style "austerity" measures like raising taxes, and stands on increasingly on shaky political ground, with a massive strike by public employees mobilizing whole sectors of the population against a weakened Pastrana – and in coalition with the guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers. As a sign of their desperation, the Colombian government and its US backers are hysterically claiming that the rebels are building a "drug highway" through the Colombian jungle: not only are they supposedly using 'forced labor," but they are also "damaging the environment." I suppose this is supposed to mobilize Greenpeace and human rights activists in the front lines of the drug war. But not this time. The rebel FARC, for its part, appears to be widening and repairing an already-existing two-lane highway – an engineering feat apparently beyond the capabilities of Bogota or the provincial authorities – and denies that forced labor is being used, or that their latest civic improvement project will be used to transport illegal drug shipments. Last year, the central government formally ceded a large swath of jungle territory to the FARC, and negotiated with the ELN (another Marxist faction) to set up yet another autonomous region, ostensibly to promote the peace process but in reality to acknowledge what is already an accomplished fact: the Colombian rebels and their paramilitary rivals already control more than half of the nation's territory. Any counterinsurgency operation directed against these rival factions will necessarily be long, arduous, and bloody – and no amount of "smart bombs" and hi-tech gimmicks will pull off a rapid and pyrotechnic "victory," not even a Pyrrhic one.


If a bloody endless quagmire from which there can be no honorable escape turns out to be Clinton's legacy, then the Republicans will have helped him achieve it. The Los Angeles Times reports that

"After recent guerrilla attacks on police outposts, US congressional members who support the Colombian police have criticized the Clinton administration for allegedly preventing use of the helicopters for reinforcement or rescue operations. When police officers were killed late last month in a remote area after guerrillas pinned them down and they ran out of ammunition, the US Embassy released a statement denying that the ambassador had prohibited the Colombians from sending the helicopters in for support. Weather conditions were blamed for grounding the aircraft both then and over the weekend, when a guerrilla incursion left the northern town of Arboleda in ruins. Only four of more than two dozen police assigned to the town are known to have survived the attack, which was carried out with weapons that included gas cylinders hurled like Molotov cocktails."


The Republicans, with Rep Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Affairs Committee in the lead, are criticizing Clinton for not intervening with massive force: "The administration has been so preoccupied with avoiding being involved in Colombia's counterinsurgency efforts that it has permitted the situation to erode and deteriorate," he rants – but isn't it funny how we didn't hear anything about escalating the Colombian war at that touchy-feely festival that was staged instead of the Republican national convention. If the newly-multiculturalized GOP really wanted to do some "Latino outreach," instead of parading George P. spouting bromides in Spanish they would come out against blaming Latin Americans for what is an American cultural problem. But that would be way beyond the strategic geniuses who run the GOP: after all, the differences between the two "major" parties disappear at the water's edge, as we are often told, and we have but one foreign policy on both sides of the aisle: intervention everywhere and anywhere – but especially where there's money to be made.


While Rep. Gilman – the best friend American helicopter makers ever had – is demanding that the nonexistent line between fighting drugs and fighting rebels be completely erased, the Clinton administration is more cautious, anxious that the Colombian debacle doesn't deteriorate into total chaos before election day 2000 – but unwilling to declare a state of emergency lest this raises the alarm among Republicans, who are sure to ask the inevitable question: "Who lost Colombia?" That it was never ours to lose is something that virtually no one of any stature has pointed out, not even among the third party presidential candidates: Buchanan, Nader, (Harry) Browne (the Libertarian candidate), none of them has addressed this specific issue. Meanwhile, we slide down the slippery slope of direct US military intervention in Colombia, a little further every day, until one day we all wake up to discover US troops caught in the middle of a vicious three-sided civil war – and all of the Americas south of the Rio Grande united against us.


Colombia is just the beginning. For you can't stamp out drugs in one country, without having the trade turn up elsewhere in the general neighborhood. The drug lords and farmers driven out of Peru by the successful counterinsurgency operations carried out by Alberto Fujimori – far too ruthless by American "human rights" standards – moved on to greener pastures, not only in Colombia but throughout the region. We will have to set up counterinsurgency operations on a continental scale – in effect, launch a massive invasion of South America. Can such a project be undertaken with a clear conscience, never mind its prospects for success? How much will it cost in troops and treasure? During the GOP national convention, Condolezza Rice reassured her audience that under a Bush administration the US would not be "the world's 911 number." But in Bogota, the 911 call has been made – and, in a show of bipartisan support during an otherwise deadlocked election year, Washington is answering with unusual dispatch. The coming war in Colombia has much in common with most of our other overseas intervention: we never voted for it, we never debated it, but there can be no doubt that we are going to get it. The only question is how fast – and how hard.

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“Behind the Headlines” appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with special editions as events warrant.

Justin Raimondo Archives (now detailed)

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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