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The Colombia Quagmire, Part 3


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IN SEPTEMBER BRAZIL INITIATED Operation Cobra, with some 12,000 personnel, to improve border security. “The whole world was talking about the Colombia Plan,” explained Mauro Sposito, head of the federal police effort: “We had to do something.” Local officials also worry about an influx of refugees.

Brazil is concerned not only about politics but also about the environment and has criticized the environmental impact of planned defoliation operations and the inevitable runoff. And it has legitimate cause for concern: a Colombian army report warns of “ecological damage … of unsuspected proportions” from oil contamination caused by the destruction of pipelines, chemical dumping from drug production, and deforestation from coca eradication operations. Aerial spraying has also been destroying legal crops, such as bananas, corn, and yucca, and is blamed by residents for a variety of health ailments.

Perhaps most vulnerable is Ecuador, economically impoverished and politically unstable. Observes Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute,

Simply put, the country is ungovernable. It has had five presidents in as many years, and has a divided military of dubious loyalty to democracy and the elected government. Moreover, there are huge segments of the population that are simply unwilling to understand or to accept simple economic facts: that the government is bankrupt, that it cannot afford subsidies, and that the country can no longer live beyond its means.

Washington is spending $62 million on hangars and runways at an airfield outside the city of Manta. Mayor Jorge Zambrano calls it “an advance post for combating narco-trafficking” rather than a “base,” but that might not satisfy the guerrillas. FARC, the leading guerilla group, has threatened retaliation if Quito hosts American anti-drug operations, and Colombian insurgents kidnapped 10 foreign oil workers in October. Leftist congressman Antonio Posso complains,

Our oil pipeline has already been attacked by Colombian guerrillas, and the paramilitary groups are killing people on Equadoran territory, so just imagine how a military installation like this acts as an enticement.

Such a facility, he adds, “is a provocation to all of the irregular forces in Colombia.” Indeed, last year one Colombian guerrilla leader termed construction of the American airbase at Manta a “declaration of war.”

Maximo Abad Jaramillo, the mayor of Lago Agrio, an Ecuador border town, has seen Colombia’s violence spill over into his hometown:

If Colombia is going to be another Vietnam, as everyone keeps saying, then Ecuador is going to become the Cambodia of this war. We are not ready for this war, we don’t want to be a part of it, but we are being dragged into the conflict against our will.

Although there have long been fights among Colombians in Lago Agrio, neighborhood activist Amparo de Cordova notes an important difference: “Now their violence is political and subversive, and our authorities seem powerless to stop it.” More than 20 Colombians died in the first six weeks of 2001.

Quito has posted 5,000 additional soldiers along the border with Colombia. But that hasn’t stopped cocaine labs and cocaine-knowledgeable Ecuadorans, once employed in those labs, from moving from Colombia back to Ecuador.

Some 7,000 refugees have fled across the border into Ecuador. Citizens who have asked the police and army for protection have been turned away — officials say they lack money, bullets, and gasoline. “We have been left unprotected here,” one civic leader complained to the New York Times. Foreigners, too, are at risk: eight oil workers were kidnapped last year, one of whom was killed in January for nonpayment of ransom. America’s growing military presence has sparked significant concern throughout the region. Some refer to Ecuador as the “new Panama,” subject to overwhelming U.S. influence like the “51st state.” Complains Equadoran congressman Henry Llanes,

We are compromising our neutrality in the Colombian conflict with the Manta base, dragging ourselves into a war between the Americans and their enemies in Colombia.

Indeed, Ecuador is becoming “a sold-out country,” he told the Washington Post.Washington’s policy threatens to further destabilize this tortured land, which would in turn further undermine Washington’s drug policy.

Still, U.S. officials hasten to ensure that there is no endless tunnel in Colombia. Defense Secretary Cohen declared last year, “We are not going to be drawn into any conflict in Colombia or anywhere else in Central or South America.” Retired Marine Corps general Charles Wilhelm, former commander of U.S. Forces in the Southern Command, which includes Colombia, also seeks to reassure, telling Congress,

The lieutenants and captains, like me, who struggled and suffered through Vietnam, have become today’s generals. I know that we will speak with one voice in opposing any measures that would lead to a repeat or a risk of repeat of the Vietnam experience. When I visit Colombia, I do not feel a quagmire sucking at my boots. I willingly place a 36-year professional military reputation on the line when I tell you categorically Colombia is not another Vietnam.

Alas, every step into the mire requires another, and then another. As part of Plan Colombia, Congress gave $40 million to Ecuador for “social infrastructure” projects. It didn’t take long before the Ecuadoran foreign minister came calling in Washington to ask for another $300 million.

Yet Washington is unlikely to find the regional cooperation that it so desperately desires. Officials suspect that Venezuela, despite President Hugo Chavez’s contrary protestations, is aiding Colombia’s insurgents; Brazil has indicated its opposition to Plan Colombia. Panama has refused base access to U.S. military forces. Indeed, several nations suspect Washington of desiring to use Colombia’s crisis as an excuse to base military forces throughout the region.

Some despairing Colombians want the United States to directly engage the guerrillas in peace talks. President Pastrana encouraged the United States to accept FARC’s invitation to attend their meeting in early March. The administration said no, explaining that it would not talk with the group until the killers of three American aid workers in 1999 were turned over to the government for trial.

But what if FARC complied? It is hard to imagine what Washington would say to the guerrillas in peace talks: stop being communists and give up? Even the most obvious solution, the two sides make up and America gets the hell out, doesn’t need Washington’s participation. Bogotá could negotiate that agreement.

The change in administrations provides Washington with an opportunity to reconsider current policy. Georges Fauriol, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Bush advisor, predicts, “The incoming leadership will be calling for a clear reassessment of its Colombian strategy. It will mean input from all the intelligence agencies.” Still, President Bush seems likely to support the thrust of current policy.

Last August he endorsed the $1.3 billion aid package, which

should help build up the capabilities of Colombia’s armed forces. Our aid will help the Colombian government protect its people, fight the drug trade, halt the momentum of the guerrillas, and bring about a sensible and peaceful resolution to this conflict.

Secretary of State Colin Powell made much the same claim when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the new administration will support Plan Colombia.” As he explained,

We believe that this money … should be used to help the Colombian government to protect its people, fight the illicit drug trade, halt the momentum of the guerrillas and ultimately bring about a peaceful and sensible resolution to the conflict.

Maybe it’s supposed to be used for that, but will it be used for that?

Drug cartels and insurgents

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems more inclined to risk even deeper involvement if money does not do the job. True, Secretary Rumsfeld acknowledged that drug production is driven by American demand, and “success” in Colombia will merely shift around production.

But last December Robert Zoellick, then a Bush advisor, argued, “We cannot continue to make a false distinction between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts,” since “the narco-traffickers and guerrillas compose one dangerous network.” Although Colombia is not formally within his portfolio as the Bush administration’s chief trade negotiator, he is an influential Republican voice on foreign policy.

And late last year Anne Patterson, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, and Barry McCaffrey, Clinton’s drug czar, both began referring to FARC as a drug cartel. Indeed, the latter charged FARC with being “the principal organizing entity of cocaine production in the world.”

The policy implications of this stance are obvious. Worries Adam Isaacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy,

They are using these new accusations to sell the American people on the idea that U.S. aid to Colombia is good, even if it starts sliding into the counterinsurgency side.

As Zoellick argued in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations,

If the legitimately elected leaders of Colombia demonstrate the political will to take their country back from killers and drug lords, and if the Colombian people are willing to fight for their country, then the U.S. should offer serious, sustained and timely financial, material, and intelligence support.

At the very least, the new administration is less likely to be concerned about drawing lines between anti-drug and anti-insurgency efforts. Bernard Aronson, undersecretary of state for Latin America in the first Bush administration, even speaks of devoting the same level of attention to Colombia that was applied to the Balkans and Middle East.

President Bush seems to recognize the risks. “We have to be very cautious not to send too many troops and have them get involved in combat. There is a very fine line between training and combat. I support training and aid,” he told Bogotá’s La Republica newspaper. “I would be very cautious about sending U.S. troops in right now.”

Caution should be the watchword. All the ingredients of Vietnam are present: Corrupt, ineffective ally. Violent, popular insurgency. Inefficient, half-way U.S. involvement. Vulnerable, worried neighbors.

Washington’s policy will almost certainly fail, not just in the short term, but also in the three-to-five-year range, within which the Clinton administration promised success. However, during that period the United States will become inextricably identified with a corrupt government that mistreats its own people. U.S. advisors will be injured or killed and U.S. equipment will be destroyed. Combat will spread. Drug trafficking will continue.

The question then is what President Bush — who pledged a “fundamental commitment” to improve U.S. relations with Latin America during the presidential campaign — will do.

A bad situation made worse

Many of Colombia’s problems are its own: statism, inefficiency, and corruption. The nation lives in a bad neighborhood and suffers from a history of instability that bedevils all of Latin America. There are no easy answers to its problems.

But U.S. policy has unquestionably made matters far worse. Millions of Americans want to use drugs. Washington’s attempt to suppress those desires has created a monster illicit market that threatens not only our domestic freedom but also the stability of foreign societies.

Having fostered a real war, the United States has responded by smothering Bogotá with money, making it the third largest aid recipient after Israel and Egypt. This financial flood will, alas, create a new set of problems in turn.

The Economist magazine called for molding “Plan Colombia into a more balanced policy, more clearly aimed at strengthening the democratic state.” Unfortunately, the United States has few tools to do so; pouring money into Colombia, even if for different purposes, is unlikely to work. To be effective, reforms must be generated locally through local institutions and be supported by local citizens.

An obvious alternative beckons. FARC has indicated its willingness to cooperate with a drug-eradication program if America follows countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal in legalizing drug use and concentrating on drug treatment. Observes FARC Commander Ivan Rios,

We realize that cocaine is a bad thing and does lots of damage to the poor people in the United States. But we say that simply persecuting the poor peasants who grow coca is not the answer. Instead of bombing and fumigating Colombia, the United States must make its own sacrifices.

Even if FARC did not respond, legalization would destroy the illicit market and thus make FARC’s cooperation unnecessary. A number of Latin Americans are starting to think the once unthinkable. Colombian opposition congressman Julio Angel Restrepo unsuccessfully attempted to push drug legalization onto the agenda of a March meeting in Ottawa of the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas.

More significantly, in preparing to attend the April Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada, Mexican President Vicente Fox told Mexican journalists that legalization was the only way to win the war on drugs; his public security minister and his foreign minister openly back such an approach. Uruguayan president Jorge Batlle Ibanez said that he wanted to open a debate on the issue at the summit. But Washington stands in the way of any country that attempts to shift course.

Through promises of foreign aid, threats of economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and even use of the United Nations bureaucracy, Washington pushes ever tougher prohibition. Even wealthier industrialized states such as Australia have bent to Washington’s will when the United States denounced even modest steps to relax controls over drug use. Poor Third World states, such as Colombia, are particularly vulnerable to U.S. pressure.

What will President Bush do? He could accept the very public embarrassment of withdrawing. And, conveniently, he could blame it all on his predecessor, yet another misdirected policy of a misguided administration.

Or, perceiving the “light at the end of the tunnel,” as did so many Vietnam-era officials, he could escalate, bit by bit, proclaiming imminent victory every step of the way. Captured by the claim that American credibility is at stake, because it was needlessly put at stake, he could involve U.S. forces in a long, hot war and ultimately be forced to claim “peace with honor” in the face of waning popular support at home. Then — too late — it would be evident that Colombia had, indeed, become Vietnam.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)