With the troubles in the Middle East consuming so much of the medias short attention span (destroying any semblance of belief that the West can impose a "peace process" on the area but hardly destroying diplomatic delusions) hardly any attention is being paid to Colombia. The Republicans (with the honorable exception of Rep. Tom Campbell, running a quixotic campaign against California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein) have not chosen to make the Clintonian Plan Colombia an election-year issue. And aside from an occasional dispatch from a Latin American correspondent, the news media arent paying much attention.
But even apart from that fact that, as Tom Campbell told us in recent editorial board meeting, "I dont know of any American who seriously believes we can solve Americas drug problem by fighting a foreign war," the adventure is going badly. It avoids being an election-time issue mainly through the collusion of leading Democrats and Republicans.
The sad thing is that it is almost solely an American delusion although the Colombian government can hardly be expected to say "no" when the deluded Yanquis insist on sending money and helicopters. But even the Colombians have doubts. Colombian President Andres Pastrana had in mind not just $1.3 billion in helicopters and advisers from the Americans, but a comprehensive development plan in the $7 billion range, with much of the money to come from European countries. But the European leaders are giving him the cold shoulder, and it looks as if hes going to be stuck as an American pawn or at least hell be perceived that way.
NEIGHBORS NOT ENTHUSIASTIC
The perception hasnt done him a lot of good. The ruling national party lost almost all the gubernatorial and mayoral races held in two provinces this week. Despite calls from Pastrana for a massive turnout as a symbol of rejection of violence, about 60 percent of eligible voters abstained.
Meantime, none of Colombias neighbors is enthusiastic about the Americanization of the long-running Colombian civil war, sold to gullible Americans as a foray in the Holy War on Drugs. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen had to travel to Latin America week before last to assure defense ministers in Latin American countries that Plan Colombia really really really wont turn into another Vietnam. But defense ministers in countries near Colombia were skeptical. Even though the US incursion has just begun, they are already feeling ill effects.
A bunch of oil workers, including five Americans, were kidnapped in Ecuador a few weeks ago, and hardly anybody believes it was not the Colombian FARC forces that did it, pushed in part by the American intervention. Venezuelan military forces recently pursued some alleged drug traffickers across the border into Colombia, from which they are said to be operating. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is openly worrying that the US intervention into Colombia will leader to a wider conflict.
In Vietnam the rationale was that Vietnams neighbors would be overthrown like dominoes if the United States didnt fight that war. In Colombia it is precisely the US intervention that is creating the threat of conflict spilling over into neighboring countries.
AN UNCONSTITUTIONAL INCURSION
"How quaint of you to ask," Ted Carpenter, head of foreign policy studies for the libertarian Cato Institute replied when I asked him whether the US Constitution contemplated or authorizes a military adventure like Plan Colombia "I cant see where the authority can be found to commit military hardware and training personnel, whether to fight drug traffickers or battle left-wing guerrillas, in Colombia without a declaration of war or even a finding of national emergency. But I suppose its no more unconstitutional than a great deal of what the US government has done in foreign policy in the last few years."
If nobody in the federal government or at least nobody in a policy-making role takes the constitution seriously, the question becomes whether Plan Colombia, under which the United States is sending $1.3 billion in helicopters and other military equipment, along with US military training personnel, to Colombia to fight drug traffickers can work. Is such a commitment likely to break the power of Colombian coca growers or cocaine traffickers and/or reduce the quantities of illicit cocaine shipped to the United States and Europe? How will we know if it has been effective? What benchmarks of success have been posted? Is there a Plan B if the first wave of aid doesnt achieve results?
Perhaps most important, if the intervention in Colombia does not succeed, either in reducing drug trafficking or in stabilizing the Colombian regime or in stabilizing the region by reducing left-wing guerrilla power, what will the American response be? Will we admit that it wasnt a very good idea, or will we redouble our efforts until the United States finds itself in a quagmire that could make Somalia or Kosovo or Bosnia or even Vietnam? look like a picnic?
HOW MUCH LIKE VIETNAM?
US officials disparage any comparison to Vietnam. The United States will only supply equipment and training, they aver. The U.S.-provided equipment will only be available for the battle against drug traffickers, not to have an influence on the ongoing civil wars that have raged in Colombia for most of this century. US advisers will not be allowed to participate directly in military or quasi-military activities, and there will be a ceiling on the number of US advisers who can be in Colombia at any given time.
Maybe. But that doesnt answer the question of how the United States will know when its objectives are achieved or even what those objectives are. Most military commanders prefer to have specific objectives when they are asked to put their troops into harms way.
San Ho Tree, a military historian who is the Colombia expert for the generally left-wing Institute for Policy Studies has studied Vietnam and sees troubling parallels. "In Vietnam the objectives kept shifting," he told me this week. "Was the objective to take Hanoi, simply stop the Viet Cong or to beef up the South Vietnamese government? In Colombia, will US policymakers be satisfied if drug production and trafficking is reduced by 50 percent, or would such an accomplishment be viewed as only a partial success requiring escalation? Nobody can tell us what would signal success."
DRUG PRODUCTION DIVERSION
Ethan Nadelmann, who before becoming executive director of the Lindesmith Center (which promotes drug policy reform) taught international relations at Princeton, thinks that from the standpoint of controlling cocaine trafficking the policy is more farce than well-thought-out plan. "In the first place, because of Colombias terrain and history, it is unlikely to succeed in stopping coca farming," he told me. "Even if it achieves that objective, plenty of cocaine is in storage in various places to keep the market supplied for several years. And if coca farming is reduced in Colombia, it will pop up elsewhere, whether in Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama or elsewhere, creating serious destabilization in countries that are already politically fragile."
San Ho Tree thinks coca growing could spring up in even more far-flung places in the unlikely even it is effectively suppressed in Colombia. "Remember," he told me, "1.2 billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day. Could some of those be seduced by traffickers to grow coca? Personally, I think sub-Saharan Africa is fertile ground agriculturally, economically and politically to take up the slack if Plan Colombia actually works."
HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS MESS?
So if the aid plan to Colombia is unlikely to stop cocaine production or drug trafficking and might even destabilize the region, why did the administration push it and Congress although with some dissent and grumbling approve it.
The Washington-based legal publication Legal Times has done several stories documenting the fact that two helicopter companies have lobbied hard for a Colombian intervention. It also seems to be the case that "drug czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was in charge of the US militarys Southern Command before retiring from the military, has had a disproportionate amount of influence in the decision-making process. Gen. McCaffrey is a persuasive and impressive personality and may be presumed to have special expertise about Latin America to go along with his commitment to reduce the flow of illegal drugs.
Although administration officials promise solemnly that US aid is intended only to fight drugs, it is difficult to see how the effort can be divorced from the ongoing civil conflicts in Colombia. The main leftist guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has found it convenient and lucrative to offer protection to coca farmers and traffickers. Paramilitary groups organized originally to protect farmers and other locals from guerrillas are also implicated in the drug trade. The drug trade has become tightly interwoven into conflicts that have plagued Colombia (with various degrees of intensity and violence) at least since 1948 and arguably for longer.
WHERE ARE THE POLITICIANS?
The Colombian adventure has opened some doors on Capitol Hill in the sense that it has made it easier for critics to discuss the larger issue of the drug war more openly without being laughed out of the place. The Black Caucus is on the verge of open revolt on the drug war. Rep. John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was a surprise speaker on "drug policy day" at the Shadow Convention in Los Angeles and is introducing omnibus legislation to reform mandatory minimum sentencing, eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses, and increase treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
But most politicians still shy away from criticizing the drug war or associating with drug war critics. So the Colombian incursion is going forward and is unlikely to be cut back Indeed, its likely to become more costly and extensive unless Americans see body bags. The fact that it isnt an election-year issue is a tribute to the hollowness of the American political process.