I may be dating myself, but whatever happened to the "Vietnam Syndrome"? After watching the a US helicopter rescuing the last Americans from what used to be the US embassy in Saigon and collectively gasping at the sight of it taking off just barely before the Red Hordes closed in the American people were supposed to be wary of ever getting bogged down in another malarial swamp, fighting Commies and pretending we were "winning." The Vietnam war tore a nation asunder, brought down two Presidents, and would have ripped the social fabric to shreds if the US hadn't hightailed it out of there. In the end, everybody was against that war not only the hippies and Commies in our midst, who waved NLF flags and chanted "victory to the Vietcong" in the streets of American cities, but also Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a platform of "Vietnamization" and eventually negotiated with the North Vietnamese. As the impossibility of winning a land war in Asia became all too apparent, the chorus demanding US withdrawal began to be heard on the right as well as the left and the center: even John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, who had earlier demanded "victory," came to believe that the war was a cleverly laid trap which the US had been pushed into by our liberal elites. The New Left and the Birchers may have hated each other but not so passionately as they hated the technocratic liberals who got us into that war. For years thereafter, that hatred persisted. On the left, it gave birth to a reflexive distrust of military intervention, and on the right it invigorated an already healthy skepticism of all government action, including especially in the post-cold war era overseas military action.
But time blurs the tragic lessons of history, and so they are endlessly repeated the second and third and fourth times as farce, parody, and pastiche, respectively. By 1991, with the Gulf War in full swing, President George Bush was exultantly proclaiming: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!" But that distinction does not belong to Bush: the credit must go to Bill Clinton, the man who made imperialism popular with a generation brought up on the slogan "make love, not war." Now that many of them can't make love like they used to, yesterday's flower children have turned into post-millennial warmongers all in the name of "humanitarianism," of course. Kosovo was their holy war, and now they turn their sights on Austria, the Caucasus, Russia, and even Colombia the one nation on earth where the analogy to Vietnam is the closest.
I turn to a discussion of how and why the US is slowly sinking into the Colombian quagmire with a strange sense of detachment, and despair at the seemingly invincible self-destructiveness of Homo sapiens. Are we lemmings, or is there some higher meaning or purpose in the suicidal pattern of events unleashed by our mindlessly interventionist foreign policy? Today the Clinton administration is unveiling its $1.3 billion plan to fight drug-dealing leftist insurgents and shore up the shaky government of President Andres Pastrana. Here is a country that has everything Vietnam had jungles, Marxist rebels, grinding poverty with a post-millennial twist being the drug connection. This massive infusion of military aid and equipment reflects Washington's growing commitment to crushing the 40-year-old guerrilla insurgency and establishing an American beachhead in South America. But why Colombia, and why now?
Before I go any further, let us put aside the hypocritical and completely unconvincing rhetoric about the "War on Drugs" nobody but nobody believes a word of it. If we have to pour billions into every Third World hellhole that cultivates illegal drugs and markets them to US consumers, then we will have to invade all of South America, as well as large parts of Asia. Is the bipartisan coalition backing the Colombian adventure prepared to launch such a global war? What utter nonsense. No, our deepening intervention in Colombia has nothing to do with waging a war on drugs and everything to do with ensuring that important US corporations, such as America Online Time-Warner, involved in commercial ventures dependent on regional stability, have their investments protected with a little help from American taxpayers. When the President of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Grasso, travels to the isolated jungle hamlet of La Machaca to meet with Paul Reyes, Colombia's chief guerrilla commandante, what else are we to make of it?
It was a remarkable occasion: Grasso and Reyes met for two and a half hours. What did they talk about? The Associated Press reported that Grasso, in 'his first visit with a rebel chief," underscored the commitment of "the world financial community " to the stalled negotiations between the rebels and the Colombian government. Here was the living symbol of the world capitalist system holding out a promise of peace and collaboration with the last of the Marxist revolutionaries holed up in his jungle hideout, and announcing that he hoped his visit would "mark the beginning of a new relationship between the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia] and the United States." Inviting Reyes to join the global economy, he sought to reassure that this would not be a betrayal of socialism but only a refinement: "We talked about economic opportunity and how developed and developing markets around the world were broadening the participation of ownership, the democratization of capitalism." While Grasso stated that he wanted to keep his deliberations with Reyes private, the AP article went on to report that the FARC "although ostensibly Marxist," doesn't "oppose foreign investment or free market mechanisms as long as social justice is guaranteed." On the other hand, we are told that "critics of the FARC's peasant-based leadership say it is out of touch with the modern world and needs to better grasp how the international economy works." This should give us a good enough inkling of how the Grasso-Reyes dialogue went:
REYES: "The situation here is intolerable. The peasants have no land, and the elites run the show for their own profit. That is why we are fighting for socialism."
GRASSO: "Never mind all that old-fashioned Marxist stuff, we can give you socialism with cell phones if you'll just turn your country over to us. After all, what can you do to build socialism here in this god-forbidden jungle? Listen, Paul, we're all socialists now haven't you ever heard of the Third Way? Instead of being doctrinaire and stubborn and living in this little shanty, you and your comrades could be living it up in Bogota, investing in the stock market and talking on your cell phone. Hey, listen, why not come and visit the Stock Exchange? I'll show you around and we'll do lunch. And who knows If we're lucky, another move by the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates may send stock prices soaring and then you can get to see real socialism in action!"
Unconvinced, Reyes and his guerrillas fight on, increasingly confident that they don't have to compromise or temporize in their battle for total power. In Washington, meanwhile, the Clinton administration is getting serious, putting Colombia at the top of its foreign policy agenda in what may perhaps ultimately prove to be the most shameful aspect of a perfectly depraved Administration..
White House drug czar General Barry McCaffrey has become the War Party's chief publicist and spokesman in the Latin American theater of operations. As the Administration's point man, he dismissed rising complaints by top defense officials as organizational jealousy, averring that "everybody tried to get aboard this mule in Sunday's New York Times. But the same piece describes these unnamed critics as opposed to the operation per se, as not only "decidedly unenthusiastic about the military's growing role in the antidrug effort" but also gravely "worried that it may be dragged deeper into the civil war that has ravaged Colombia for almost 40 years." McCaffrey admitted that "there wasn't a huge fight among agencies over this package": what the huge fight is about is whether the mule should go forward at all, or whether it is likely to throw whomever is foolish enough to mount it.
While the Republicans are screaming "who lost Colombia?" and General McCaffrey is pushing for the militarization of the antidrug effort, with strong Administration backing, law enforcement officials are more cynical. The Times cites anonymous officials as suggesting that the Colombian government could take measures that would cost nothing, such as "taking cellular telephones away from jailed traffickers so they cannot operate from prison." Oh, now I get it: while we send 30 sophisticated UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to Colombia at a cost of more than $400 million, drug traffickers are making deals on their cell phones from the comfort of their Colombian jail cells.
The Administration spin job on this vast increase in the US military and political investment in Colombia was succinctly summed up by one Defense Department official quoted by the Times, who said: "Here's the dilemma: Do you just let them go down the tubes? It is far preferable for us to try to train them and equip them than it is for American troops to ultimately have to be there."
Why? Will somebody please tell me why American troops will "ultimately have to be there?" Are we fated to reenact the worst disasters in our history? Why not "let them go down the tubes?" Governments are overthrown around the world all the time: another coup in Ghana, a revolution in Venezuela, an uprising in Burma, yet another insurgency threatens the "legitimate" government of the Congo who cares? And don't tell me that the difference is that Pastrana was democratically elected: the US is now siding with the European Union in attempting to nullify the results of the Austrian election. What is so important about Colombia, of all places, that it requires such a costly commitment?
When in doubt, follow the money, and the AOL-Time-Warner connection is just the beginning: British Petroleum is another big investor, currently involved in a dispute with native Indians who claim the company is poaching on their land and polluting their cultural and religious heritage. BP facilities have been a target of opportunity for the various guerrilla groups: if the huge new aid package to Colombia is passed by Congress, then BP will no longer have to contract out with a private security force to protect the pipelines the American taxpayers will pick up the bill. While Administration officials insist that US combat personnel will not be "directly" involved in counterinsurgency operations, a recently-released White House document described the central purpose of the new aid package as "helping the Colombian government push into the coca-growing regions of southern Colombia, dominated by insurgent guerrillas." As General Fred F. Woerner, the former commander of US military forces in Latin America, put it: "How do you push into a area dominated by these guys without having anything to do with them?" Good question, General, and one that I expect we'll be asking whenever this issue begins to show up on the national radar screen.
Naturally, Colombia has been on Antiwar.com's radar screen all along. Faithful readers of this column will perhaps remember my last column on this subject, which I recommend with one caveat: Pastrana is no hero, as I depicted him, perhaps inadvertently, but instead the chief architect of US intervention. It was in this role that he recently made a special lobbying trip to the United States to lobby for US aid and assistance, stopping just short of asking for direct military intervention. Significantly, he appeared before the US Chamber of Commerce, in Washington, DC, and basically pursued his agenda of offering up the entire state-run apparatus of railroads, oil facilities, and communications media to the highest bidder in exchange for military and economic assistance. This is 'market socialism" or the Third Way, in the era of Clinton and Blair: privatize the profits but socialize the costs.
One surprising aspect of the Colombian intervention that throws new light on this whole operation is the Cuban factor. Last year around this time Pastrana arrived in Cuba seeking assistance from Fidel Castro. Two top items on the agenda: Castro's intervention with the guerrillas to enforce a cease fire and cooperation between the two countries in drug interdiction operations. With Pastrana facing military defeat at the hands of the rebels, and Castro increasingly concerned about increasing drug usage in Cuba, there was a natural confluence of interests. Like our own rulers, Castro is currently on an antidrug kick, blaming their influence instead of life under Cuban socialism for the restlessness and alleged nihilism of increasingly violent Cuban youth. This US-Colombian-Cuban alliance is much easier to understand as US immigration authorities legitimize Castro's regime by doing their damnedest to send Elian Gonzalez back into slavery.
As far as I know, not a single presidential candidate has even mentioned the word "Colombia." This issue, about ready to explode onto the headlines, is not even going to be debated by the candidates this election year. Here is yet another ominous parallel with Vietnam: that war, too, was "escalated" so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. Eisenhower got us involved, and the program was expanded by each succeeding President. Nobody really noticed it until it burgeoned into a national tragedy.
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