President Clintons national security adviser Sandy Berger insists the U.S. incursion into a long-running civil war er, excuse me, $1.3 billion worth of assistance to the government in fighting the drug war in Colombia is not like Vietnam. Not at all. "The fact is, this is nothing similar whatsoever," he told the Associated Press recently.
Well, they are two different countries and its about 40 years later, so of course there are some differences. But the parallels are too eerie to be dismissed.
The potential dangers are highlighted by the downing over the weekend of a U.S.-made helicopter, killing seven Colombia airmen, during a government-guerrilla firefight. The administration insists that the new helicopters will be used only against drug traffickers, but its difficult to see how that can be guaranteed, especially when virtually all sides have some links to drug traffickers.
So what happens when an "anti-drug" helicopter is brought down in a future firefight with some guerrilla faction or another after intensive US training and briefing? And what happens when as is virtually inevitable a Colombian helicopter is brought down with a US adviser on board? Will that be the signal for more intensive involvement or will it trigger an active antiwar movement?
THE CREEPING PARALLELS
Of all people, California Republican senatorial candidate Rep. Tom Campbell has been among the more active people in public life drawing attention to the parallels between Colombia and Vietnam.
As he put it in his speech to the Shadow Convention during the recent Democratic National Convention, the United States plan is to send in advisers and send in helicopters. Part of the plan is to relocate people into "strategic hamlets" (though thats not the term being used) and teach them to grow different crops. The United States is entering a long-running civil war in a jungle country. Part of the plan is to defoliate the jungle, with fungus rather than with napalm.
"The only thing missing," said Rep. Campbell, "is Robert McNamaras signature on the plan."
AN IMPERFECT ANALOGY
With all due respect to Rep. Campbell, one of the few members of Congress with the temerity to question this ill-conceived operation, a few other things are missing this time around.
First and foremost, of course, there is no global communist threat, and therefore no support for the other side by a hostile superpower with expansive ambitions. In fact, beyond the idea of "drug traffickers" fairly universally acknowledged to be a divided, shifting and competitive lot its hard to figure out if there is an "other side." Most authorities count about 20 armed groups with various agendas in Colombia.
Consequently, there is no way to construct a remotely plausible "domino theory" in regard to the Colombia drug war. What other countries will "fall" to tyranny if the US fails to save Colombia from the depredations of the evil drug traffickers? If anything, it is likely that US intervention will strengthen the hand of the almost charmingly anachronistic "Marxist" guerrillas who constitute one of the Colombian guerrilla bands.
WHOS DESTABILIZING WHOM?
In fact, the most destabilizing force in Colombia and among its neighbors is likely to be US intervention, rather than US failure to intervene. On a tour to try to drum up support and understanding among Colombias neighbors the week before last, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other US officials encountered anything but enthusiasm for Bill and Maddies (and Gen. Barrys) excellent adventure. Rather they mostly ran into skepticism and fear, according to news reports.
Ecuador is concerned about refugees, so Ms. Albright offered the country $15 million. Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia said outright that "Brazil does not have the same level of commitment as the United States in the program to fight drug trafficking in Colombia," and the country is beefing up its border forces.
Peru is moving forces from its Ecuadorian border to its Colombian border in anticipation of refugees and disruption. Panama is requesting $30 million from the United States to handle expected border disruptions. Venezuela may or may not provide a safe haven for guerrillas or it may or may not be doing so already, depending on which news reports you believe.
EASY TO MOVE
Behind much of the concern in the region is the memory of the fact conveniently forgotten by most US official spokesthings that the Colombian cocaine trade was in large part created by the "success" of anti-cocaine efforts in Bolivia and Peru. The US gave considerable assistance to Bolivia and did manage to discourage a few coca growers. The Peruvian government under that sterling democrat Alberto Fujimori, attacked coca growers as part of its concerted (and often pretty brutal) effort to wipe out the notorious Sendero Luminoso or "Shining Path" guerrilla movement.
The most significant result was that coca growing was moved from those countries where it had been made difficult to Colombia. Before these famous victories Colombians mainly specialized in jungle labs where raw coca from Peru and Bolivia was converted into cocaine paste or powder. When things got tougher in Peru and Bolivia the cartels simply found Colombian farmers not hard to do in a country characterized by subsistence agriculture and decades of civil war willing to take a few more chances for some extra money and the promise of protection.
Colombia is a rugged jungle country with three major mountain chains. The government has virtually no effective control outside major cities and has effectively ceded large parts of the country to local rebels. So it wont be easy to stop cocaine growing. But insofar as the government, with help from drug warriors in Washington DC who are eager to wage proxy wars in other peoples countries, is able to increase the effective cost of raising coca in Colombia, the growing will be moved to remote jungle regions in neighboring countries.
Colombian officials have said all the right things when Mr. Bill and other US officials have come to call and cheer the surrogates on. Thats not surprising. One could hardly expect the Colombian government to say, "no, thanks" to money and helicopters; indeed, it will no doubt ask for more each year for years to come.
Add that additional yearly subsidy, as well as the cost of reparations, compensation or whatever convenient formula is developed to cover paying off countries like Panama and Ecuador for putting up with US meddling, to the total cost US taxpayers and military people will eventually be asked to bear.
But the iron logic of prohibition economics suggests the drug trade wont be stopped. As former Colombian police official Gustavo de Greiff who years ago began to question the advisability of cooperating in U.S.-inspired drug wars, then finally resigned has explained, a kilo of processed cocaine goes for about $2,000 in Colombia but can be sold for $60,000 on US streets.
Thats a lot of profit for a lot of middlemen. If you arrest one, three more will jump forward to take his place. If you suppress coca growing in Colombia it will pop up in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela or Brazil. Indeed, its already happening.
Many drugs are said to cloud the mind, make it difficult to discern reality and subvert logical thinking. Fighting a drug war seems to have precisely that impact on American policy makers.