Commentary: Repeating a U.S. Mistake

Commentary: Repeating a U.S. Mistake
Posted by FoM on April 23, 2000 at 13:51:40 PT
By Robert J. White 
Source: Star Tribune
In a perilous corner of foreign policy, the closing months of President Clinton's administration bear an eerie resemblance to the closing weeks of Jimmy Carter's. The corner is Latin America: El Salvador in Carter's case, Colombia in Clinton's. There is, however, a difference. The scale of the error Clinton seems bent on making -- $1.6 billion in assistance, most of it military -- dwarfs Carter's mistake. 
Alarmed by a guerrilla offensive in January 1981, shortly before Ronald Reagan became president, the Carter administration overrode its own arms ban and rushed aid to the Salvadoran government. Reagan and his aides enthusiastically increased the momentum thus begun. But a dozen years later, after billions in U.S. aid, 70,000 Salvadoran deaths and with prospects for government victory still receding, the Bush administration accepted a U.N.-inspired compromise that ended the war. Among today's respected Salvadoran leaders are guerrillas once reviled by U.S. officials.The pace in Colombia is slower, perhaps because its civil war has dragged on for 40 years and because Colombia is 20 times the size of El Salvador. The stakes are different too. Reagan considered El Salvador a battleground against communism where leftist guerrillas were Moscow's pawns.Although Colombia's two main guerrilla forces are Marxist, the collapse of communism with the end of the Cold War made that ideology a curiosity rather than a threat. So the more hawkish among Washington's Latin America policymakers no longer wave anti-Communist banners; they crusade instead under slogans against drugs. Since Colombia is the main source for cocaine and heroin smuggled into the United States, and since Colombia's guerrillas have found ways to tap into the drug mafia's profits, the solution seems straightforward.The crusaders' strategy: Give the Colombian armed forces greater clout. Send them 63 new helicopters, lots of counternarcotics military training and intelligence advice. Concentrate the military program on what U.S. planners call the "push into southern Colombia," where much of the drug and guerrilla activity is concentrated.Also emphasize the human rights-good government component by putting that category at the head of the list (as did the U.S. Embassy in Bogota in a fact sheet which, to the embassy's credit, notes that the amount requested for such purposes is only $93 million of the $1.6 billion total). Include aid to induce Colombian farmers to switch from coca and opium poppies to benign crops ($145 million). Insist that the U.S. role is to fight drugs, not guerrillas; to uphold democracy, not choose sides.This approach has problems. Since Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt, there ought to be a solid reason for the sudden increase sought by the administration and an apparent majority in Congress. A surge in drug use in the United States might be persuasive -- except that the rate of use has been fairly stable the past five years. Barry McCaffrey, Clinton's director of drug-control policy, offers a different explanation. Most of the cocaine processed in Colombia used to come from Bolivian and Peruvian coca. But as production in those countries fell in the late 1990s, more came to be grown in Colombia, along with poppies for heroin.As McCaffrey pointed out this month in the Washington Times, this concentration of production and processing further concentrated drug wealth in Colombia. The incentive for poor farmers to win some of that wealth proved irresistible. It also gave guerrilla and paramilitary groups opportunities to enrich themselves by taxing the growers.The paramilitaries McCaffrey mentions are nongovernment militias that conduct their own war against the leftist insurgents. The situation evokes memories of El Salvador. There, as in Colombia, guerrillas were often merciless and, also as in Colombia, resorted to kidnapping and extortion. But they never equaled the right-wing death squads' capacity for atrocities, and no amount of U.S. pressure was able to sever the death squads' links to the Salvadoran military.Not far south of El Salvador, history is being repeated. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 78 percent of the human-rights violations in Colombia last year were committed by paramilitaries. And Human Rights Watch reports that Colombian government investigators have found evidence of collaboration between Colombian military units and the paramilitaries, despite denials all around. As a writer for the online magazine Salon put it neatly, the army has outsourced its dirty war.The U.S. strategy for a "push into southern Colombia" runs into another problem: The paramilitaries whom McCaffrey rightly condemns are concentrated in the North. The guerrillas are farther south, as is much of the coca-growing. Clinton officials may believe they are sponsoring a war against drugs, not against guerrillas. The distinction in Colombia is less clear. In a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the author Alma Guillermoprieto makes the point bluntly. "Colombians," she writes, "cannot believe that anyone would be dumb enough to fight drugs with military assistance."The U.S. proposal is wrong not so much in its content as in its emphasis. Countless brave, dedicated Colombians deserve encouragement and support. Among them are the jurists who issued the recent human-rights report. Another is Francisco Santos, an editor at Colombia's leading newspaper and a member of the family that owns it. Santos is a sponsor of a growing grass-roots peace movement, though his sponsorship is now from a distance. He went into exile last year when he learned of a plot to kill him, apparently by the main guerrilla group. Santos hopes most of the aid will go to social rather than military programs. The House approved the military-heavy aid bill last month. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has promised Senate action by midsummer. The United States is marching toward guerrilla war in the name of drug war. The quagmire beckons.-- Robert J. White, retired editorial page editor, writes on foreign affairs. Published: April 23, 2000  Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. NewsHawk: Rainbow Articles:Weave of Drugs and Strife in Colombia Not a Drug-Ridden Society Director Criticizes Journalist 
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Comment #5 posted by Kanabys on April 24, 2000 at 08:32:55 PT
I think I see it
5 pounder, I have been feeling that same gnawing at my mind and heart for sometime now. And now after the incident over the weekend with the Gonzales kid, it grows even stronger. I may be going overboard a little, but as soon as I can I'm leaving for a nation with a few more human rights. I really don't want to be caught behind the lines when the neo "nazis" finally seize complete control.
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Comment #4 posted by fivepounder on April 24, 2000 at 07:33:00 PT
deja v
Its a done deal. The industial military complex gets a chance to make some money and test out their newest toys. The drug warriors get to hoot and howl.  Of course this will result in cheaper higher quality drugs in this country from Columbia. We are so good at doing stupid things like this. The simple common sense remark. ""Colombians," she writes, "cannot believe that anyonewould be dumb enough to fight drugs with military assistance." Shows just how far from reality our government is. I find it frightening. Our country is rapidly heading toward becoming facist Germany. And very few people see it, just like in the 20's. 
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Comment #3 posted by dddd on April 24, 2000 at 03:41:57 PT
The Public
 The only explanation I can think of,as to why this thing is going ahead,with relatively little public opposition,is this; I think most of the public is disinterested and numbed,because trying to change the course of the government jaguernaut corporate cash frieght train,is nearly hopeless. Combine that with a well tuned subtle propaganda network,owned by many of the very same palms that will get greased by this debacle in Colombia.....All this leaves the relative few of us who pay attention,gasping in disbelief as all this unfolds and comes to pass. I'm not sure,but I think this aid package is a done deal.I'll bet many have already banked on it....dddd
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Comment #2 posted by FoM on April 23, 2000 at 15:50:42 PT
Blind Eyed Politicans
kaptinemo,When I was young and learned about what was done to the Jews I just couldn't understand how it happened and no one opened their mouths long before anyone ever did. If a country or culture hates a group of people they literally do not allow their minds to see what is going on. When a country says they are a God Fearing Nation and then try to destroy the lives of those that are different, no wonder we are hated by so many people around the world. Money and power are the Gods of our country. Peace, FoM!
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Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on April 23, 2000 at 15:20:02 PT:
Quagmire, indeed
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." How many of us have heard that phrase? Or, perhaps, I should ask, how many have *not*?'...the author Alma Guillermoprieto makes the point bluntly. "Colombians," she writes, "cannot believe that anyone would be dumb enough to fight drugs with military assistance."But we are. Step by step, just like 30 some years ago. Like Vietnam never happened. Marching straight into quicksand, eyes wide open and seeing nothing. For the sake of Clinton's fears about his (already hopelessly soiled) 'legacy', we are going to wind up sending our kids into another sinkhole. Unless this time we are finally smart enough to let the angels go first.
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