Pubdate: Sun, 10 Sep 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: George Will


President Clinton's assurances that the United States will not get
involved in the Colombian civil war that the United States already is
involved in (with military personnel, equipment, training, financing
and intelligence) make sense if you think of the helicopters as farm
implements. The 60 transport and attack helicopters, and most of the
other elements in the recent $1.3 billion installment of U.S. aid,
look warlike. However, the administration says the aid is essentially
agricultural. It is all about controlling crops--particularly the coca
fields that provide upward of 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches

The law governing U.S. intervention includes this language: "The
president shall ensure that if any helicopter procured with funds
under this heading is used to aid or abet the operations of an illegal
self-defense group or illegal security cooperative, then such
helicopter shall be immediately returned to the United States."
Imagine how reliably this will be enforced.

Conceivably, important U.S. interests are involved in the Colombian
government's fight with the more than 17,000-strong forces of Marxist
insurgency in the civil war, now in its fourth decade, that has killed
35,000 people and displaced 2 million in the past 10 years. Political
violence has killed 280,000 since the middle of the 19th century. Do
makers of U.S. policy understand this long-simmering stew of class
conflict, ideological war and ethnic vendettas?

They advertise their policy as drug control through crop extermination. The
president, delivering the money that will buy military equipment, said: "We
have no military objective." And: "Our approach is both pro-peace and
anti-drug." As though the civil war and the anti-narcotics campaign can be
separated when the left-wing forces that control half the country are
getting hundreds of millions of dollars a year by protecting and taxing
coca fields.

The U.S. policy--peace through herbicides--aims to neutralize the
left-wing forces by impoverishing them. But already those forces are
diversifying. The Wall Street Journal reports: "Armed with automatic
rifles and personal computers, guerrillas often stop traffic, check
motorists' bank records, then detain anyone whose family might be able
to afford a lucrative ransom." There are an average of seven
kidnappings a day, and the newspaper reports that every morning
Colombia's largest radio network "links its 169 stations with its
stations in Miami, New York, Panama and Paris. It opens its lines to
relatives of kidnap victims who broadcast messages they hope will be
heard by their missing loved ones."

Speaking of diversification, does anyone doubt that, in the very
unlikely event that Colombia is cleansed of the offensive crops,
cultivation of them will be promptly increased elsewhere? Despite
Colombia's efforts, coca cultivation increased 140 percent in the past
five years, partly because the United States financed the reduction of
Bolivia's coca crop. However, the pressure on Colombia's coca growers
is "working": Some of them have planted crops (and the seeds of future
conflicts) across the border in Peru. And guerrillas have made
incursions into Panama and Ecuador for refuge. And the price of
cocaine in the United States has plummeted for two decades.

Will the United States ever learn? As long as it has a $50 billion
annual demand for an easily smuggled substance made in poor nations,
the demand will be served. An anecdote is apposite.

A presidential adviser was fresh from persuading the French government
to smash the "French connection" by which heroin destined for America
was refined from Turkish opium in Marseilles. Boarding a helicopter to
bring his glad tidings to President Nixon, the adviser, Pat Moynihan,
who then still had Harvard's faith in government efficacy, found
himself traveling with Labor Secretary George Shultz, embodiment of
University of Chicago realism about powerful appetites creating
markets despite governments' objections. When Moynihan (who tells this
story) told Shultz about his achievement, this conversation ensued.

Shultz, dryly: "Good."

Moynihan: "No, really, this is a big event."

Shultz, drier still: "Good."

Moynihan: "I suppose you think that so long as there is a demand for drugs,
there will continue to be a supply."

Shultz: "You know, there's hope for you yet."

That is more than can be confidently said for U.S. policy in Colombia,
which seems barren of historical sense. "The enduring achievement of
historical study," said British historian Sir Lewis Namier, "is a
historical sense--and intuitive understanding--of how things do not
work." Such a sense should produce policy. Instead, the most that can
be hoped is that U.S. policy in Colombia may, painfully and tardily,
produce such sense.
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