Bob Barr: Wrong About Colombia

Bob Barr’s announcement that he is making a run for the White House on the Libertarian ticket has many advocates of a non-interventionist foreign policy hopeful, even excited – and I include myself among them. A successor to Ron Paul is right around the corner, or so it seems, and the continuing education of the American voters – a long-term project, to be sure – is still on track. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the candidate himself may need some educating, particularly when it comes to the issue of U.S. intervention in South and Central America. In a recent article for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, written just before his announcement, Barr averred:

“Iraq and Afghanistan continue to enjoy top billing in America’s newspapers and on our television news programs. With untold billions of dollars flowing regularly into that part of the world and American soldiers continuing to be killed there, it’s no surprise our government and our media pay close attention. South America remains an afterthought for government policy-makers and news show producers. Whether we like it or not, that may soon change, as well it should.”

True: we are being distracted by our reckless Iraqi adventure. Furthermore, we would do well to attend to our own hemisphere, where trade relations, the immigration issue, and the history of U.S. intervention in the region continue to produce a smoldering “Yankee go home” mentality that does not redound to our interests.

But it doesn’t take long for Barr to go off the rails. He raises none of the aforementioned concerns and, instead, segues into a description of the “military tensions between Venezuela and Colombia” that is not merely inaccurate, but outright disingenuous. The cause of these tensions, we are told, is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who “massed armed forces at his country’s border with Colombia and threatened military action. This saber rattling, Chavez said, was in response to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ordering a small military force into its western neighbor, Ecuador, to track down and kill a Colombian guerrilla leader operating from what had been the safe haven of a neighboring country (and who reportedly maintained contacts with Chavez).”

It has been relaibly reported exactly nowhere how many Colombian troops violated Ecuador’s sovereignty, so we don’t know how “small” this incursion was. At any rate, Barr fails to mention the Colombian air strikes, which took out the FARC encampment. It was an act of startlingly brazen aggression, made possible by the billions in military aid we have funneled into the Colombian regime since the Cold War era. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the “war on drugs” displaced the war on international communism as the rationale for hemispheric interventionism, and Colombia’s government has been the main beneficiary. Barr seems to have been taken in by this narrative.

Quite aside from the issue of drugs and their illegality, the consequences of U.S. intervention in Latin America have been similar to the “blowback” we’ve suffered on account of our Middle Eastern meddling, albeit less intense and less newsworthy. In Latin America, as in the Middle East, we have engendered anti-Americanism by supporting local despots and standing futilely against the rising tide of nationalism. U.S. support for various right-wing generals, caudillos, and paramilitary death squads has created a backlash, which left-nationalists like Hugo Chavez – and, while we’re on the subject, Fidel Castro – have ridden to power.

The U.S. government has made a point of humiliating Chavez and makes no secret of its plans for “regime change” – openly funding groups to promote the American version of “democracy” and using the good offices of the U.S. State Department as a propaganda sounding board for Chavez’s weak, divided, and disorganized internal opposition. Yet fulsome U.S. support for the Colombian invasion of neighboring Ecuador fatally undermines the opposition, which has been valiantly fighting the authoritarian socialism – really, national socialism, with an emphasis on the nationalist aspect – represented by Chavez and his “Bolivarian” movement. Chavez can now mobilize the Venezuelan nation against the very real threat of Colombian aggression, using war hysteria as a club against his political opponents much as George W. Bush and the Republicans have maligned the patriotism of antiwar Democrats (as well as antiwar Republicans, notably Ron Paul).

Our pundits and politicians are prone to make sweeping pronouncements on subjects they know nothing about, the former because it greatly simplifies matters and makes their job a lot easier, the latter out of pure opportunism and a need to come up with quick answers. Both frame the recent crisis in terms of a familiar bipolarity: Colombia’s Uribe versus the Venezuelan Castro, with President Correa of Ecuador caught in the middle. This analysis, couched in terms of political personalities, is semi-accurate, as far as it goes. Yet what is missing here is the historical backdrop, or any sense of moral and political ambiguity, factors well-known to the inhabitants of the region.

Barr, like most of the “mainstream” media in the cosmopolitan West, gets the story wrong. His effort to paint Uribe as some sort of saint, a heroic fighter against the drug cartels, is a fairy tale. As I explained here, Uribe is a product of these forces, not their opponent.

What puzzled Western observers of the latest Latin American fracas was how it ended, with Uribe, Chavez, and Correa practically kissing and making up, in a somewhat ludicrous public display of mutual forgiveness. What gives?

The mystery is cleared up, to a large degree, by noting that these three nations – Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador – were once part of the same nation, Gran Colombia, the creation of Simon Bolivar and the Venezuelan adventurer-soldier-scholar Francisco de Miranda, who first envisioned the republic of Great Colombia. Miranda’s vision, and Bolivar’s, was symbolized in the red, blue, and yellow flag he designed, the battle flag of the regionalist independence movement that kicked out the last rotten timbers of the decaying Spanish empire. The same color scheme is replicated today in the flags of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.

This family quarrel ended, as they often do, in all-is-forgiven mode. While this may be a temporary lull in hostilities, outsiders have to realize it’s familial theatrics, more than anything else, that drives the participants. Whether it ends in war – what would, in reality, be a civil war – depends, to a large degree, on the role of the U.S. government.

Who can doubt that Uribe cleared the cross-border strike with President Bush before daring to undertake such a bold adventure? Acting as Washington’s proxy, Colombia’s shot across the bow was directed at Chavez as much as the FARC guerrilla group. Barr needn’t worry: it looks like the Bush administration is paying attention to the region, and that isn’t good.

The whole affair had all the hallmarks of a typically clumsy and faintly ridiculous Bush White House operation. The propaganda campaign accompanying the invasion was rife with reports of direct communication between Chavez and the FARC leadership – not to mention alleged representatives of a certain Democratic presidential candidate! Not since the Niger uranium forgeries has such an incompetent fabrication been foisted on the public in the service of the War Party.

Barr, for his part, seems to understand very little of the historical and political background of this latest outbreak. He writes:

“Although the publicly stated reasons for the tensions between the Colombian and Venezuelan leaders relate to Colombia’s efforts to eradicate the leftist guerrilla threat that has plagued the country for decades, most observers know it is Colombia’s openly pro-U.S. stance that really rankles Chavez. The entire South American continent has long chafed under the benign neglect of one U.S. administration after another.”

Quite aside from the laughable proposition that U.S. policy in the region qualifies as “benign,” Barr frames the Latin American scene in familiar, bipolar terms. He acknowledges the reconciliation between the Bolivarian brothers – albeit without seeming to understand the historical context – but downplays this as superficial. He also seems stuck, as do all too many old-time conservatives, in a Cold War time warp. Barr refers to the “leftist guerrilla threat” to Colombia, yet, for some reason, no mention is made of rightist paramilitaries that rely on the drug trade, kidnapping, extortion, and terror to maintain and expand their influence, just like the FARC. (Although, to be fair, he does mention them in another piece.)

Barr also misses the main problem with our Latin American policy. By pouring military and economic aid into Colombia, we empower Uribe to go much further than he might otherwise dare. There is nothing “benign” about that. Instead, it marks Washington as the instigator and enabler of yet another internecine conflict, a role similar to the one we play in Iraq, where we’re now taking sides in the intra-Shi’ite sectarian conflict. Barr opposes U.S. intervention in Iraq’s unfolding civil war, yet the same principle of staying out of foreign quarrels may not apply to Colombia, at least according to Barr. As he puts it:

“While Washington’s current national security worldview remains focused like a laser beam on Iraq and Afghanistan, fires smolder and burn elsewhere. Shifting at least a portion of that concern and those resources to South America, and especially to the Andean region that currently is near the boiling point, is critical to our security. There may not be weapons of mass destruction lurking in the jungles of Venezuela, Colombia or Ecuador (there weren’t in Iraq either, of course), but arms are flowing into the area. Venezuela, for example, is buying billions of dollars worth of Russian military equipment. Leftist guerrillas and narco-terrorists remain firmly entrenched in the region, and evidence that other terrorist groups are using the area for problematic purposes is mounting.”

Those Russians – they’re at it again! Why, it’s almost like we’re back in 1968, and the cry is heard throughout the land: “To arms! To arms! The Russians are coming!”

What “resources,” by the way, does Barr suggest we move to the Andes – should we send our troops to Bogota instead of Baghdad? Well, then, why not both? In principle, Barr could have no objection, and the rest of the argument would consist of identifying the bona fides of the latest “terrorist threat,” which Barr assures us lurks in the jungles of Latin America.

As for the Russian arms sale to Venezuela, that is nothing compared to the missile “defense” shield we are positioning in Central and Eastern Europe, which directly threatens Moscow. Add to that U.S. arms sales and military aid to the government of Georgia, which is in a standoff with the Kremlin over disputed territories. The Russian sale of a few Kalashnikovs to the Venezuelans is nothing compared to our deliberate policy of provocation, encirclement, and serial regime-change, a campaign with one target in mind: Moscow.

If leftist guerrillas and “narco-terrorists” are “firmly entrenched in the region,” as Barr says, then what will U.S. intervention do to counter these forces and make the region safe for U.S. interests, which, Barr not so subtly indicates, consist of oil? The vague threat that Chavez will somehow take his oil off the market and refuse to sell it to American consumers is never explicitly stated by Barr, yet it hangs over his discourse like a vague, obscuring cloud.

This is sheer nonsense, blown away by the first gust of economic common sense. As Barr himself states, Chavez’s power and influence in the region is made possible by Venezuela’s oil wealth – the source of which is consumption in the U.S. and Europe. Why Chavez would want to cut off that source is a mystery known only to Barr. I can see the U.S. imposing economic sanctions on Venezuela; it is highly unlikely that Chavez would impose those sanctions on himself.

It is the U.S. government – an interloper – that is “using the area for problematic purposes.” The Bush administration is using Uribe as its regional proxy, to pick fights with Chavez and stir up trouble in a region of the world where our record is, frankly, atrocious. This is the crucial point missed by Barr, and one that most conservatives fail to understand, because they react in a knee-jerk fashion to Chavez’s leftism – and the socialist politics of the various popular insurgencies that have erupted over the years, from Nicaragua to Venezuela and most countries in between.

While this is no place to engage is a lengthy analysis of the roots of Latin American statism in the feudal structures of the colonial era, suffice to say here that the Latin American Left has taken care to appeal to very real grievances against both feudal landowners and foreign corporate entities, which have manipulated successive governments to their own economic advantage – and haven’t hesitated to use force, including the U.S. military, to accomplish their ends.

Hemispheric interventionism is no more justifiable than the “benevolent global hegemony” of the neocons, whose candidate, John McCain, wants to intervene everywhere. To oppose this sort of hubris with a somewhat modified version – U.S. hegemony on only two continents, instead of all seven – is to concede the argument in advance and reduce the foreign policy debate in this country to a minor quarrel among members of the same interventionist family.

As noted in this space previously, I am certainly cheered by Barr’s clear statement, as exhibited on his Web site, of a principled stance on behalf of a non-interventionist foreign policy. The trick is in applying this abstract principle consistently, across the board, without fear or favor.

As a candidate, Barr is clearly on a learning curve, but I would warn him – if he doesn’t already know – that Libertarians (as in members of the Libertarian Party) are notorious sticklers for doctrine. To a large degree, this can characterized as a charming idiosyncrasy, which at the end of the day has to be subordinated to a certain degree of political practicality. But there is a limit.

Barr has two advantages: he is well-known, and he is apparently sincere. He joined the LP a while back, with no clear intention to run for anything, and his rejection of interventionism seems quite genuine. I would hate it if he gave further ammunition to the sticklers and obstructionists, not to mention whatever covert Republican operatives would be eager to sabotage Barr’s nomination. A recent poll showed Barr running at 7 percent of the vote – a massive vote by traditional third-party standards, and a veritable dream-come-true for the Libertarians. This would doubtless come at the expense of the GOP.

If I were the Republicans, I would immediately dispatch a special “task force” to disrupt the Barr campaign – and, who knows, perhaps they already have. In any event, Barr is doing himself and his campaign no favors by engaging in this sort of off-the-cuff “analysis” of foreign affairs. As a libertarian (small-l), I’m willing to put up with the nonsensically-termed “fair tax,” and I’m even mildly enthusiastic about his opposition to legalizing “hard” drugs, such as methamphetamine (this will doubtless prove his undoing over at Reason magazine). However, when it comes to foreign policy – and such a clear-cut case as South America, scene of so many U.S. depredations that it would be tiresome to even list them, let alone elaborate on them – that’s where I draw the line.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].