Whether the United States will become involved in a more open way in the ongoing battles by the Colombian government against both narcotraffickers and left-wing guerrillas (sometimes in alliance) is still unknown, but despite official denials it looks more likely by the day. This Monday Reuters ran a story based on an interview with Ivan Rios, described as a commander in the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group, which has waged civil war against the government for 35 years.
Rios claims that "the spiral of intervention that the North Americans have unleashed is very dangerous.” U.S. officials estimate there are 150 to 200 US military personnel and emphasize that all of them are there to assist in the Drug War rather than helping the government to fight the rebels. But Rios claims the US presence is much larger. "In Colombia we calculate that there are approximately 2,000 North American military personnel,” Rios told Reuters reporter Tom Brown. "Some of them are involved in espionage, others serve as delegates to the various security forces, such as DAS (state security police) or the police. Still others are out there training battalions or piloting military spy planes like the one that crashed in July,” Rios claims.
It is almost impossible to check such claims. Rios could be blowing smoke or firming the justification for FARC rejection of peace talks between the government and the rebels that were supposed to begin this week. The "new” plan released by Colombian President Andres Pastrana a couple of weeks ago contemplates at least $1.5 billion in aid from the United States over three years (the US acknowledges $298 million in aid to Colombia this year) and another $3 billion from other international "donors.”
But Pastrana’s plan doesn’t address any of the items on FARC’s longstanding agenda. FARC wants the government to stop funding and training right-wing paramilitaries that have waged brutal battles against left-wing guerrillas (putting most ordinary Colombians in the middle). It wants Colombia to end cooperation with the United States in the drug war and arrange a prisoner exchange. None of these issues was addressed and the first response from FARC was to reject the plan out-of-hand.
Most top US officials claim they have no intention of getting US forces more heavily involved in either the drug war or the anti-guerrilla war. But there seem to be wheels within wheels in the top echelons of the imperial center. US "drug czar” Gen. Barry McCaffrey (a former commander of forces in Latin America) has been plumping for increased US military aid to Colombia, mentioning the sum of at least $500 million per year, since July. He has traveled to other countries in the region, spreading his current claim that the narcotraffickers and guerrillas have become one and urging them to commit more money and people to the drug war in Colombia.
PASTRANA CAUTIOUS BUT MIGHT BE CAUGHT
When Colombian President Pastrana traveled to the United Nations to deliver a speech September 20 the same day U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan announced that the "core challenge” in the next century will be for the UN to be less fastidious about sovereignty and "to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights wherever they occur should not be allowed to stand Pastrana made it clear that he was opposing foreign intervention, at least now.
"One of the sacred bases” of the UN charter,” Pastrana told the General Assembly, is the obligation of state "to not intervene directly or indirectly in affairs of other nations.” Even though his vaunted peace plan had recently been rebuffed by FARC, he expressed confidence that FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot” Marulanda was ready to talk seriously about ending the civil war on peaceful terms.
"Colombia will accept no type of foreign intervention,” Pastrana said.
But it might be difficult to avoid. Not only has the narco-guerrilla war heated up recently, Colombia is in the midst of what may turn out to be its worst economic depression since the 1930s. What that means is that not only are many ordinary Colombians caught in the crossfire, they can be deprived of the means to protect themselves. Many want to flee the country. The US Embassy in Bogota has gotten three times its normal number of visa requests in recent months and turns down 80 percent of them.
So many Colombians are fleeing into neighboring countries. About 4 million Colombians have swelled the 22 million population of Venezuela. There are large and growing immigrant/refugee communities from Colombia in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Panama according to MSNBC reporter Jennifer Rich. About 1.5 million Colombians have been displaced internally. And both narcotraffickers and guerrillas have used neighboring countries as a refuge, sometimes to the point of establishing bases in Venezuela and Panama.
All these spillover effects of violence and a sense of hopelessness in Colombia especially if they’re compounded by failure to reach even a phony peace agreement with the guerrillas could cause neighboring countries to listen more carefully to Barry McCaffrey’s interventionist pleas. If Colombia seems to be descending into chaos (and it wouldn’t take long for a concerted burst of attention from the international news media for such an impression to seem overwhelming) and the neighboring countries seem to have a promise of strong backup and plenty of aid from the United States, they just might cooperate in an expeditionary force coordinated by the United States.
FARC leader Ivan Rios warns that "it’s possible that this isn’t going to be like some little Vietnam but that it could turn out to be a big Vietnam” if Yanqui intervention becomes more massive and more open. He might be indulging in empty rhetoric, but it is certainly true that an area the size of Switzerland is openly controlled by the rebels, that much of the countryside is mountainous jungle that would be difficult for foreigners to handle.
US citizens who don’t want to see US troops bogged down in a Colombian quagmire would do well to inform themselves and prepare for activism, starting with letters and phone calls to Congresscritters urging that they take a stand against US intervention in Colombia.
EAST TIMOR: EMPTY JUSTIFICATIONS
It should hardly be surprising that the hyper-interventionist neo-conservative magazine the Weekly Standard should have found somebody to write a longish piece for its September 27 issue titled "Why East Timor Matters.” What is mildly surprising is just how empty the justifications for intervention now and a long-term commitment to "nation-building” turned out to be.
The writer, Tom Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, begins by lamenting that fact that while the Aussies are stepping up to the challenge, "the United States shrugs its shoulders, laments the humanitarian catastrophe, and willfully ignores the larger, strategic concerns.”
So I kept looking for some statement of just what those strategic concerns assuming that as with most commentators the term strategic concerns refers to military or geopolitical worries that might pose a threat to larger US strategic goals in East Asia are. Poor Mr. Donnelly was unable to provide a single example of such a concern that might justify his preferred policy "to think of the peacekeepers as a down payment on a long-term investment in creating a stable, democratic Indonesia.”
He does go into some recent history without much distortion, noting that the Asian economic crisis has made Indonesia more unstable than it otherwise would have been. But nowhere did he offer a strategic reason for US intervention.
The best he could do was to claim that "our ability and willingness to help resolve the crisis in East Timor and support Indonesia’s democratization will be read in the region as an indicator of our reliability and staying power. America’s closest regional allies already have doubts about our resolve with regard to China and North Korea, which we now compound by out reluctance to assume a natural leadership role in East Timor.”
So the United States should commit money and people to an extremely dangerous and potentially volatile situation (the Aussies haven’t had an easy time of it and the situation is unlikely to get better for them in the near future) for essentially psychological reasons? The strategic position of the United States is enhanced if we demonstrate an ability to make a foolish commitment and then stick with it no matter how long it takes or how brutal we have to be?
In fact, why is it important, let alone essential, for the United States, as Donnelly insists, "to maintain its position as the guarantor of East Asian security,” whatever that means. The neo-imperialists seem to think that such essentially empty phrases are enough to justify any intervention. Perhaps we should be encouraged that they seem so intellectually vapid as to not offer anything more concrete than such macho phrases by way of justification. Or perhaps we should be appalled that they no longer think concrete gains or geostrategic advantages are necessary to explain the self-evident burdens of Empire.