I suppose there are bigger hypocrites than Bill Clinton, but their names escape me for the moment. The US President made a flying visit to Colombia last week, after assuring the population in a video broadcast that the US has no military objective in their country. I'm sorry? Wasn't he about to hand over $1.3bn some £900m in mostly military aid to Colombia's President Andres Pastrana? Well, yes, but you would barely know it from Mr Clinton's trademark blend of personal anecdote and stomach-churning sentimentality. He insisted he was merely providing assist- ance in a campaign against drugs led by the Colombian government, before going on to salute ordinary people who are marching for peace, for justice, for the quiet miracle of a normal life.
The compliment was not whole-heartedly returned. Bomb-making equipment was found in Cartagena, the Caribbean port where Mr Clinton spent precisely eight hours, well away from the capital, Bogota, and the southern provinces which the government has ceded to drug traffickers and left-wing guerrillas. Even so, Mr Clinton's brief presence required protection from no fewer than 5,000 soldiers and police, 350 US Secret Service agents, helicopter gunships and several navy patrol boats. Six people, including three children, died in guerrilla attacks apparently prompted by the visit, and eight soldiers were injured. Protesters marched in Bogota, signalling that Mr Clinton's assurance that he wanted to make life better for people had not been universally believed. With very good reason. The Colombian military, whose involvement with paramilitary death squads is admitted even by its own government, is about to receive 60 helicopters and training for two special army battalions. At present, they do not have enough helicopter pilots or hangars, but their job will be to protect police as they attempt to destroy coca plantations. This is not a task for which Colombians have shown much aptitude; in the decade since fumigation of coca crops began, according to one recent calculation, annual production has risen by more than 750 per cent.
Since there is no meaningful distinction between members of drugs cartels and the two main guerrilla groups, the US military is taking sides in a long-running civil war which is set to become, Mr Clinton's harshest critics say, another Vietnam. The comparison is fuelled by the fact that the chief architect of Plan Colombia, as it is called, is the US's drugs tsar Barry McCaffrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran whose own record in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War has come under hostile scrutiny. (In March 1991, General McCaffrey ordered an attack on retreating Iraqi soldiers which turned, in his words, into "one of the most astounding scenes of destruction I have ever participated in". Eye-witnesses have questioned whether the Iraqis began shooting first, as McCaffrey claimed.)
* Another close parallel is the Reagan administration's military aid to the government of El Salvador and the opposition Contras in Nicaragua. Mr Clinton may be a Democrat but, like Mr Reagan, he has invoked national security in waiving human-rights conditions attached to military aid by Congress an admission that the war on drugs is more important than anything else, including murder. According to Human Rights Watch, there is "detailed, compelling and abundant evidence" of the Colombian army's connections with paramilitary death squads; half of its 18 brigades have been linked to these groups, including those operating in areas which are about to get US assistance.
Mr Clinton visited a law centre in Cartagena last week and posed in a silly hat for photographers before scuttling back to Washington. The US intervention leaves ordinary Colombians, who face a human-rights crisis of "alarming proportions" according to Amnesty International, acutely vulnerable in a civil war which is almost certainly about to intensify. The Colombian military is as incompetent as it is brutal; two weeks ago, an army patrol mistook a party of schoolchildren for rebels, opened fire and killed six. Mr Clinton has not said what the US government will do if its military advisers are attacked in rebel-controlled areas. But the spectre of US involvement in a protracted jungle war in South America is belatedly setting off alarm bells in Washington.
Why should Mr Clinton take any notice? This most shameless of US presidents will be out of office in four months, leaving someone else to sort out the mess. Opinion polls have suggested that the electorate is worried about drugs, and that the Democrats are seen as soft on the issue. Mr Clinton is doing Al Gore a favour, at no political cost to himself, while also delighting US arms manufacturers with substantial orders, not least the companies whose helicopters will be part of the aid package. You do not have to be a cynic to guess, correctly, that they also happen to be important donors of funds to the Democratic Party.
* In effect, Colombia has become the setting for an exercise which is really about US domestic politics, in which the anxieties of voters and the interests of arms manufacturers happen neatly to coincide. The war on drugs is unwinnable as President Pastrana remarked in a candid interview last week as long as there is a continuing demand in wealthy nations such as the US. Mr Clinton mouthed a few platitudes about this in his broadcast, but the truth is that the victims at home are largely expendable: young black men who kill each other in drug-related shootings or end up serving long sentences. One in 20 black men over 18 is in jail in the US, the vast majority for crimes involving drugs.
The question of why the US is so determined to prosecute a drugs "war" it has demonstrably failed to win, at such cost in human suffering, is something I do not have space to address here. But it is clear that Mr Clinton is stepping up US military involvement in another country's civil war, one which has lasted for 36 years without either side nearing victory. Can this be the same President who flew to Guatemala only last year to apologise for US interference in that country's very similar conflict, thereby contributing to the deaths of 200,000 people? Politicians are notorious for memory lapses, but this one is spectacular even by Mr Clinton's Olympic standards.
Yet the British Government supports this insane adventure, as do its EU partners. It remains to be seen whether they will feel so happy about Plan Colombia now that Mr Clinton has released the Colombian military from its obligation to clean up human-rights abuses. This weekend, Lotte Leicht, Brussels director of Human Rights Watch, is writing to EU foreign ministers asking them to suspend European aid in the light of Mr Clinton's decision. I know Robin Cook is touchy about ethical dimensions and all that, but this is one occasion when he really does have a case to answer.
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.