PARIS -- There was a better case in 1961 for fighting a war in Vietnam, which proved a disaster, than the Clinton administration has made for intervening today in Colombia. The arrival of the Bush administration offers Washington a chance to back off. It could be the last chance.
The authors of the Colombian intervention have convinced themselves that illegal drug production can be repressed in Colombia - a country largely unsettled and without roads, and some of it incompletely mapped - to a degree that would significantly reduce the supply of cocaine for sale in the United States.
They reject a fundamental principle of capitalism, which states that markets will find suppliers. And they don't acknowledge that even if the Colombian government - with U.S. support - could suppress local drug production, the most that would happen on North American streets would be a brief rise in the price of cocaine until alternative lines of supply were established.
Forty years ago, critics of the Vietnam involvement who were seriously acquainted with Southeast Asia, international communism and political warfare understood that Vietnam's war was, literally, Vietnam's war. The conflict had nothing intrinsically to do with the United States. It had to do with Vietnam. It was a national tragedy, but it was Washington's unfortunate fantasy that victory in Vietnam would block world communism. U.S. intervention merely turned a small war into a hugely destructive one for all concerned.
The war in Colombia is already a big war imposed on a small war, but in this respect, it is a war the United States has imposed on Colombia. U.S. drug users are responsible for this. They provide an irresistibly profitable market for cocaine and heroin, wherever it is produced.
It is convenient to produce the raw drugs in the inaccessible regions of Colombia, in the sheltering political circumstances of a civil struggle that has allowed warring factions on both left and right to establish effective control over sizable regions of the country. These groups receive financial support from the drug cartels, in exchange for protection.
The war over political control of the nation remains, nonetheless, Colombia's own war. It has been going on in one way or another since 1948, for reasons specific to Colombia. Intervention now by the United States can only enlarge it, making it worse, and more destructive, for all concerned. Yet the United States has already committed $1.3 billion to a military solution in Colombia. It plans to expand this campaign to the countries bordering Colombia, since under military pressure, the drug producers and shippers, and the left-wing insurgents, are likely to move into neighboring countries.
According to The New York Times, "Latin American diplomats expect American aid in coming years to dwarf the $180 million regional aid approved by Congress in 2000." Countries from Panama to Peru, and possibly beyond, are involved. Colombia itself is now the world's third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, coming just after Israel and Egypt.
Colombia's neighboring countries do not want to be part of this. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, a populist critic of the United States, has closed Venezuelan airspace to American military aircraft. And Panama's ambassador to the United States says, "Panama does not want to get involved in the internal problems of Colombia. We've been shying away from that in every way." Panama has refused to allow the United States to reoccupy the Panamanian military bases it gave up a year ago.
Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, the member of the U.S. civilian bureaucracy most committed to the program, sees it as a response to linked political and narco-criminal threats to American interests. "I think in future years," he says, "there will be a broader regional aspect to this as we plan and propose to the Congress new budgets for this kind of activity."
Bernard Aronson, who was assistant secretary of state for Latin America under the first President Bush, says the situation calls for the same level of regional and international engagement as Kosovo and the Middle East.
That international support is unlikely to come. U.S. officials complain to the press that "European and Japanese donors have failed to come through with funds" for agricultural development and civil infrastructure programs to support what is called Plan Colombia. They object to the predominantly military character Washington has given to the program.
The only apparent hope for halting this program lies in the fact that it defies all of the criteria the incoming administration and the new secretary of state have said they will respect concerning U.S. interventions abroad: There is no clarity to the objective, no convincing program for success, no safeguard against escalation and no exit strategy.
Will that be enough to change the policy?
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune