Big Money and Colombian Intervention

We interrupt my philosophical excursion into the big picture this week for a couple of rather current items that deserve attention. Let’s start with Colombia, which is poised to become the dubious beneficiary of a $1.3 billion Clinton administration escalation/intervention into its ongoing civil war and drug trafficking mess.

As Sam Loewenberg writes in an excellent article in the February 21 issues of the imperial city’s Legal Times newspaper (a weekly trade paper for lawyers and judges that from time to time does some excellent investigative pieces I remember an especially good one some years ago on the Randy Weaver case that I used in my book), "Nothing in Washington ever happens in a vacuum." The administration’s plan to intervene in Colombia is no exception. Serious lobbyists have been pushing the idea.

"For almost a year," Loewenberg writes, "a business consortium of blue-chip multinationals has been pressing the White House and Capitol Hill for such a package. The assistance, the companies say, is needed to help the war-torn Latin American company beat back the growing illegal drug trade that is making it difficult to do business." The formal mechanism for the lobbying effort is the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership, founded in 1996. The key business members are the Occidental Petroleum Corp., the Enron Corp., BP Amoco and Colgate-Palmolive.


Occidental, run for many years by the late Armand Hammer, a notorious Soviet long-time apologist who was cozy with Lenin and managed to sidle his way to Ronald Reagan’s side more than once during the Gipper’s presidency, has never been shy about using the political process to further its business interests. The company, in the person of Lawrence Meriaga, vice president for public affairs, testified before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Drug Policy a couple of weeks ago in favor of Colombian intervention. Drug "czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey, perhaps the most prominent administration cheerleader for a Colombian adventure, testified at the same hearing, along with three high-ranking administration figures, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, all of whom favored the aid package, of course.

Occidental claims one of its oil projects in Colombia has lost $100 million since 1995 due to terrorist activity. It’s more than happy to exploit the fact that most members of Congress have a knee-jerk "do something" response whenever anybody mentions illegal drugs to commandeer the American military and the taxpayers’ money to try to recoup the company’s losses.

Or, as Mr. Meriage put it, there’s "a confluence of interests. The members expressed concern about drugs, and from our perspective here, they are certainly disruptive of any normal business relationship."

Other companies have a very direct interest in seeing the intervention package approved. Sikorsky Aircraft, a subsidiary of United Technologies, stands to sell 30 Black Hawk helicopters if the package is approved, for about $360 million the Washington Post puts the cost at $385 million).

Bell Helicopter Textron is likely to sell 33 Hueys for about $66 million.


A few conservatives who are inclined to support the Colombian intervention on general knee-jerk don’t-let-the-Cold-War-be-over principles expressed anonymous concern to Loewenberg that the expensive Black Hawk helicopters were chosen in part to win the votes of Democrats. Rep. Sam Gejdenson represents Stamford, CT, where Sikorsky is based, and is the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Narcotics. Both opposed military aid to Latin American countries in the 1980s, when a Republican administration was pushing it.

Since 1997 United Technologies has given $19,000 to Rep. Gejdenson and $33,200 to Sen. Dodd, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Bell Helicopter is based in Fort Worth, and brags that "the entire Texas delegation is working on this issue," including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Martin Frost and Republicans like Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay.


Occidental not only has problems with guerrillas and narco-traffickers, it’s embroiled in a dispute with the indigenous U’Wa tribe, on whose land the company wants to drill. Three U’WA children reportedly drowned at an anti-drilling demonstration last month. Some tribe members threaten to commit mass suicide if the company starts drilling.

Tribal members and members of human-rights groups like Amazon Watch might have hoped that Mr. Environmental Sensitivity, Vice President Al Gore, might have at least lent an open ear to some of their concerns. But Occidental has been one of Mr. Gore’s political patrons for decades. His father, the late Tennessee Sen. Al Gore Sr. sat on Occidental’s board for years, and the company has paid the family $20,000 a year since the 1960s for unused mineral rights on family land. And Occidental, of course, has given big bucks both to Gore himself and to the Democratic National Committee.

An obscure tribe of indigenous people in the Colombian hinterlands can hardly hope to compete with that.


February has been the bloodiest month in Kosovo since NATO troops arrived last June after the 78-day bombing campaign. The most alarming (from the perspective of deluded nation-builders) incident was an eruption of violence between ethnic Albanians in Koskovska Mitrovica and NATO French, in this instance "peacekeepers." Two French soldiers were wounded, an Albanian rooftop sniper was killed and more than 40 people have since been arrested.

This incident could well be the trigger that leads to more intensive US involvement, in the form of committing a few hundred (or more likely a few thousand before long) US troops to areas the French haven’t been able to pacify.

As Cato Institute analyst Gary Dempsey argues in a recent op-ed piece Kosovo is starting to look more and more like "Belfast in the Balkans." "The British army went to Northern Ireland to keep the warring sides apart," writes Dempsey, "and to prevent another bloodbath. But instead of ending the violence, both sides continued for decades to launch sporadic attacks on one another as well as on the peacekeepers who were ostensibly there to help."

Like the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has not given up its weapons, as some of its spokesmen had promised and as President Clinton had earlier claimed had already been accomplished. The US and NATO commitment is more likely to stretch on for decades than to end any time reasonably soon. In imperial terms, the United States is looking more and more like ancient Rome, which sent virtually permanent garrisons of troops to certain provinces to keep the natives in line.


Few leaders in Washington are quite ready to accept such imperial logic, however, however inexorable it might be. As Jon Dougherty reported recently members of the Senate Armed Services Committee seem eager to blame "our" European "allies" for the continuing failure to accomplish anything resembling anything constructive in Kosovo. Republican Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia, blamed NATO countries’ failure to come up with the troops and money he thinks they promised during the war. The comments came during an appearance of by Gen. Wesley Clark before the committee.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan echoed Warner’s criticism of European NATO countries, as did Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. Sen. Cleland went so far as to say that "I think the Europeans should inherit the Kosovo quagmire and we should extricate ourselves from it as soon as practically possible."


If these second thoughts actually lead to U.S. disengagement rather than simply being a momentary venting of spleen, they might be welcome. But I doubt if they will. And they come a bit late in the day, illustrating a certain thoughtless disingenuousness that has become one of the signal characteristics of the American government’s approach to foreign policy.

It wouldn’t have taken much research last March or April to have come up with credible critics who predicted that the NATO bombing would not "restore stability" but lead to a potentially dangerous intervention of an indeterminate but lengthy period. Somehow I must have missed Sens. Warner, Levin and Cleland among the critics of the Mad Bomber in the White House.

Instead, of course, these worthies put aside whatever private doubts they might have harbored, suspended whatever serious judgment they might have been able to exercise about the likelihood of a constructive outcome, ignored (of course) the U.S. Constitution and rallied ‘round the presidential flag. Now when things aren’t going well, they want to blame the Europeans and dump the mess into the Europeans’ lap.

It won’t do unless they have had a more profound conversion experience than I think is likely and are ready to proffer sharp questions and entertain serious objections to the next imperial adventure probably in Colombia.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).