President Clinton's once keen sense of avoiding dangerous entanglements abroad has failed him in Colombia. The White House has pushed forward a supersized military aid package that is now driven by politics and pork rather than by coherent strategy to help that South American nation.
Let's stipulate: Colombia's problems are severe. The government of President Andres Pastrana deserves U.S. sympathy and support in its overlapping campaigns against Marxist guerrillas, drug smugglers and the worst elements of its own military -- three forces that also overlap and at times cooperate.
But the $1.7 billion aid package for Colombia the House of Representatives will vote on this coming week has been designed with all the care of a McDonald's counterperson stuffing a pound of french fries into a quarter-pound bag. The United States pursues unattainable goals largely for domestic political reasons with inappropriate tools in Colombia.
Worse: Many of the administration officials involved know this. These are precisely the arguments some of them put forward for months to check the grandiose vision of an American-run war on drugs in South America pushed by Clinton's "drug czar," Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and key House Republicans who want to pound Clinton-Gore on being soft on narcotics.
But those arguments and essential "morning after" questions have been abandoned since Clinton and his aides abruptly reversed course to accept GOP proposals to send 30 advanced Blackhawk helicopters and other counterinsurgency equipment to the Colombia military as an emergency priority.
Questions not being asked (much less answered) now in the rush to quagmire include the following:
What happens when it becomes clear that the considered judgment of U.S. Air Force officers that the Colombian military will not be able to maintain the Blackhawks under the conditions in which they will be flying is shown to be correct?
Will the United States replace the helicopters that crash or are shot down, at $13 million a copy?
Will large numbers of U.S. advisers be provided to maintain the helicopter force?
If cocaine exports from South America continue unabated, will 30 more, or 300 more, Blackhawks be furnished to expand the war?
Clinton of course will not be around to provide answers. Colombia's first Blackhawks will not arrive until six months after he leaves office. His successor will inherit an open-ended military obligation that can be trimmed back or abandoned only at domestic political cost. Whether Clinton would have pulled out rather than risk deeper involvement will be an interesting debating point. But it will be of no help to his successor in a quagmire.
Sound familiar? Do the names Jack and Lyndon come to mind?
Familiar in another way as well: This is one more example of this president's political gluttony. He cannot pass up another plateful of voters as he works to beat the Bushes once again, this time by proxy.
Clinton's instincts initially steered him away from the Colombia trap. He seemed to share the wariness of a big military investment there that has prevailed at the Pentagon throughout the discussion of U.S. options. The enthusiasm for greater involvement issue came, predictably enough, from the State Department.
Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering signaled this in a remarkable speech last October that warned anyone listening -- which would have included Pastrana, who had launched peace talks with the guerrillas -- that "Peace at any price is fool's gold. . . . The peace process must support and not interfere with counternarcotics cooperation."
Statistics showing cocaine exports from Colombia doubling on the Clinton watch seem to have focused White House attention on Gore's vulnerability shortly after that. And serious lobbying by United Technologies and other defense companies helped melt the White House's original, justified caution.
Rep. Benjamin Gilman and other House Republicans have championed supersized aid to Colombia, with an eye to blasting Clinton and Gore if it is not passed. They are the true catalysts for this foreign policy fiasco, in which the Clintonites merely show the courage of their cynicism, jumping aboard a train they hope will be derailed in the Senate.
The House Republicans blithely ignore that American demand is at the root of the drug problem more than Colombian supply. They voted down efforts by Rep. Nancy Pelosi to add funds for drug treatment at home in the catchall bill that provides aid to Colombia. They sliced out of that same bill $211 million in debt relief for the world's poorest countries. They will shoot away the problems of the Third World.
That has been tried elsewhere, with similar fuzzy and contradictory thinking in Washington at the takeoff. I can only wonder: Where is the Vietnam Syndrome when we need it?
Jim Hoagland is associate editor/senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.
Copyright 2000 Washington Post Writers Group.