|New York Times 25 February 2001
America Gets Candid About What Colombia Needs
By CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS
WASHINGTON -- For nearly a year now, American officials have been
trying to tell voters why they should care about Colombia. But this
month, one architect of that campaign, the recently retired Gen.
Barry R. McCaffrey, dramatically changed the argument. He warned
that the whole of Colombia was dying. If Americans stood idle, he
said, they would be like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese, the 1964
murder victim in New York whose screams went unanswered.
"This isn't North Korea, for cripe's sake," General McCaffrey said at
a conference in Miami attended by dozens of current and former
officials who have helped draw up Colombia policy. "We like these
people. They live next door to us. And they're in trouble."
Eight months ago, when Congress approved a $1.3 billion package of
mostly military aid, it was presented as another effort to stem the
flow of drugs. Now, it is morphing into a rescue operation for a
American officials recognized early on that any effort to stop the
drug trade in Colombia would also have to deal with the reasons drug
lords there have so much power: the country's government is weak, its
army has a terrible reputation for human rights abuses, leftist
guerrillas who have long controlled much of the countryside have cast
their lot with the drug trade in order to finance their rebellion,
and right-wing militias fighting the leftists also get money from the
drug trade. Still, the Clinton administration, in which General
McCaffrey was drug czar, thought it could mobilize Americans around a
drug-focused strategy for managing the crisis, rather than an
Now, as President Bush prepares to meet Colombia's president, Andrés
Pastrana, in Washington on Tuesday, Colombia's problems are only
getting worse. So Americans can expect to hear more about how
complex the problems are - about how solving Colombia's drug problem
may involve rebuilding the nation.
That argument evokes a problem that has bedeviled American policy
ever since the Vietnam War: How can any administration approach a
difficult and potentially engulfing problem overseas in a way that
gets Americans behind long-term, full-hearted support?
In this case, President Bush is trying to sell an investment that the
General Accounting Office says will not show results for years. Will
it also embroil American policy makers - and perhaps American
advisers or combat soldiers - in a war that Mr. Pastrana now concedes
is unwinnable? And, perhaps most critically, will the need to tailor
such a program around American distaste for overseas involvements
hamstring it from the start?
Whatever the answers to those questions, the effort is under way, and
the new administration is at least being candid about the scope of
In his news conference last week, President Bush said American
military support should be limited to training Colombian forces. "I
share the concern of those who are worried that at some point in time
the United States might become militarily engaged," he said. On the
same day, American officials acknowledged that guerrillas had fired
on a State Department helicopter last Sunday as it carried American
contract workers trying to rescue Colombian policemen.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is preparing to make the case not
only for a sustained project in Colombia but for vastly increasing
aid to its neighbors, officials say. This is needed, the logic goes,
because as military pressure builds in Colombia, the war could spill
over and destabilize the region.
"This is very scary," said Max Manwaring, a professor of military
strategy at the United States Army War College. "Because of our own
internal political problems and fear of regenerating another Vietnam
we've just concentrated on the drug thing and hoped the other
problems would go away."
In fact, Colombia today is threatened not only by the many actors in
its wars. Its society is also fractured by class, geography, weak
civic institutions and a historic tolerance for frightening levels of
The problems are interwoven, leaving strategists stumped over where
to begin. Colombians can't affect the drug flow until they pacify
the country. They can't get a peace deal with the guerrillas until
they have a development strategy. They can't undertake public works
in a war zone. Mr. Pastrana has submitted a $7.5 billion strategy to
tackle it all, but resources are scant and his authority is in doubt.
All this in a country located between Venezuela's oil fields and the
Panama Canal. Given those interests, almost no one argues that
Americans can look away.
For years the drug war served to unite domestic concerns and foreign
policy aims. But now a broader strategy is required, said
Representative Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of
the Committee on Government Reform. "Everyone realizes that the
whole region is in crisis," he said. "But the best way to avoid
Vietnam is to deal with it early."
As the United States moves into the breach, elemental questions
remain. What is the basic plan? Is it a peace strategy with a
military component? A counterinsurgency drive? A bulwark to salvage
the Pastrana administration? A Marshall Plan for South America?
And what will define its success? At the recent conference in Miami,
current and former American officials promoted starkly different
objectives, from breaking the back of the main rebel group to merely
cutting Colombia's drug exports.
The Clinton administration's salesmanship of its Colombia plan got
off to a dismal start. Colombia's neighbors voiced fears of a
spillover war and regional arms race; European officials resented not
having been in on the planning.
Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, the former commander of the United States
Southern Command, says the Bush administration must do better. "If
you lose the information struggle, how will you fare as you seek to
implement a strategy that is controversial at best?" he said.
Pentagon advocates of the plan are trying first to avoid comparisons
to Vietnam or El Salvador. They wince when news media discuss the
tactical mix in Colombia: American advisers, well-armed guerrillas,
aerial defoliants and human rights violations.
They insist they are assisting Pastrana's strategy, not imposing
their own. They say no American soldiers will be in combat. They
claim to have the private support of Colombia's neighbors even though
leaders of such countries express public misgivings. And they are
financing human rights groups in Colombia.
AT the same time, they are settling in for a long struggle. A
Pentagon assessment to be issued next month urges the administration
to move beyond the "U.S. fixation on narcotics trafficking" and focus
on "reinforcing democratic governance and working collectively to
solve subregional problems."
A bipartisan task force led by Senator Bob Graham of Florida and
Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, recently said
the main challenge will be to help Americans see beyond drugs to
Colombia's core problems. It called for long-term help in reforming
the judiciary, attacking corruption and addressing poverty, education
and health care.
It may be a tough sales job for an administration that took office
insisting that America's military is best equipped for fighting wars
- not fixing broken countries.
But Mr. Manwaring says Americans have few choices left. "We've got
to go back to the term of nation building," he said. "Nobody wants
to use it. Because that term is verboten. But that's what it is."