Pubdate: Sun, Oct 31, 1999
Source: Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (FL)
Copyright: 1999 Sun-Sentinel Company

[image: Around 40 soldiers in combat gear marching toward a mountain -
caption "On The Run: The United States is training Columbian soldiers, here
on exercise near Bogota, to fight rebel forces. Republican leaders in the
U.S. want Columbia's military to be strong so that the government has
leverage in the peace talks with the rebels that began last week." ]
Washington Bureau Chief

Washington -- To many alarmed Republicans in Congress, the drug-funded
insurgency in Columbia poses the twin evils of a potential leftist takeover
combined with the scourge of narcotics spreading through the Americas.

The obvious response, in the minds of anti-Communist drug warriors on
Capitol Hill, is to fight back hard, supplying military aid, equipment,
advisors -- whatever the Colombian generals say they need.

And helicopters. If only the Clinton administration would get off its
diplomatic duff, quit flirting with guerilla leaders, stop waltzing around
with Colombian negotiators, pull some combat helicopters out of mothballs
and send them off to do some serious anti drug fighting, the crisis in
Columbia might be resolved at last, say exasperated Republicans.

Not possible, rely a number of experts on the region, including former U.S.
diplomats. Not even close to possible.

Critics of the military option forsee a trigger-happy United States sinking
into a hopeless military confrontation, allying itself in effect with
paramilitary marauders and plunging into a civil conflict fueled by
economic inequities that cannot be won at the point of a gun.

Be patient, these critics advise. Give Colombian President Andres Pastrana
a chance to negotiate peace, develop the economy and resolve
somelong-standing grievances.

"The situation in Colombia is terrible, but a U.S. policy that fuels war
would make the situation deteriorate further," said Robert E.White, former
U.S. ambassadopr to El Salvador and now president of the Center for
International Policy in Washington. "Now is the time for the United States
to put its shoulder to the wheel of negotiations and get them moving."

Caught between those counseling patience and those clamoring for more
forceful action, the Clinton administration seems paralyzed, waiting for
events to unfold. The result is a diffused and gragmented U.S. policy, a
kind of anti-drug police action just short of actual military intervention,
a matter of buying time to sort out the options.

History may not be an entirely useful guide in this case. The United States
has been prone to intervene in Latin America and the Caribbean Basin
throughout this century, a not-so-glorious history that has produced
lasting resentments of the Yankee colossus.

Once again on a slippery slope, the Clinton administration is moving
cautiosly to bolster the Colombian government while trying to grasp a
complicated conflict with more differences than similarities to recent
experience in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and other countries in the

The ubiquitous drug trade -- which reaches into nearly every aspect of
Colombia, not just the insurgency -- makes this conflict unique.

"The idea that drug trafficking is rooted in the insurgency is a terrible
distortion," says Cynthia Arnson, a Latin American expert at the Woodrow
Wilson Center, a foreigh-policy think thank in Washington. "There are
clearly business interests, paramilitary interests, even some in the armed
forces who are involved inthe drug trade. We are acting as if the guerillas
are the ones protecting the coca culture, and that is a mistake."

"If there is a parallel to past involvement [in Central America], the
parallel would be the mistaken assumption that throwing more helicopters at
the situation is going to bring about a solution," Arnson said.

Unlike smaller countries farther north, Colombia is huge, with 36 million
people living in an expanse the size of Texas and California combined. The
southern territory has an uncontrollable border dense with jungle.

And the insurgency has been building for fourt decades, appaprently
supported by large numbers of peasants deeply resentful of economic

All this makes a quick fix hard to find. Impatient for results, some
members of Congress nevertheless say it is time the United States put its
powerful hardware to good use before Colombia rutns into another Cuba.
These members are ready for action.

"The Clinton administration has an ostrich policy with regard to Colombia
that is neither pretty nor prudent," says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart,
R-Miami. "They should be helping the colombian armed forces place
sufficient military pressure on the insurgency so that either military
victory can be achieved or a legitimate and genuine peace process can begin."

Like many Republicans, Diaz-Balart is frustrated by the administration's
alleged reluctance to send in anti-drug equipment already appropriated by

"I don't know why we can't get six stinkin' helicopters down to Colombia,"
exclaimed Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., at a recent congressional hearing.

"I don't care about the peace process in colombia," Ose said, causing a
shocked silence in the hearing chamber. "I don't!"

Ose said he cared only "that kids are dying in my district" froim drugs
that come from Colombia, and maybe some military helicopters would help
solve that problem.

But a simple solotion to the Colombian crisis so far has been elusive. And
the lack of a clear consensus on how to respond has left the United States
without a powerful influence on events/

The issue could come into sharper focus in the next few weeks when Congress
and the White House sort out an aid package for Colombia, probably in the
$1.5-billion range. The big question then will be, how much of the U.S.
money will be used for military hardware and how much of it will go for
economic development. For the time being, the de facto U.S. policy on
Colombia amounts to muddling throught.

- -- William E. Gibson can be reached at  or
202-824-8256 in Washington

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