ALTHOUGH PRESIDENT CLINTON SEEMS unaware of it, the $1.6 billion he is requesting to fight coca production in Colombia amounts to intervention in another country’s civil war. Neither the president nor the secretary of state has given the American people any coherent explanation of what is at stake in Colombia or of how massive military assistance can do anything but make matters worse.
Americans have always been skeptical about the wisdom of intervening in the civil wars of other countries. Although our diplomatic history is studded with lapses, the doctrine of nonintervention still carries considerable weight — enough to require that those advocating military excursions be able to justify them in terms of global threats to national security.
Our intervention in El Salvador’s struggle did not truly constitute intervention, President Reagan argued, because the revolutionaries were not fighting in their own cause but as hirelings of Moscow and Havana. The rationale for involving the United States in Colombia’s civil war rests on the equally specious ground that the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — are not an authentic insurgency but an armed drug cartel that fights to protect illicit profits — “narco-guerrillas” to quote from the charged vocabulary of the White House drug policy adviser, Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
The largest component of the military assistance, titled “Push into Southern Colombia,” calls for $600 million to train two additional special counternarcotics battalions with thirty Blackhawk helicopters and thirty-three Huey helicopters so the army “can access this remote and undeveloped region of Colombia.” Some of the funding would “provide shelter and employment to the Colombian people who will be displaced.” Although there is $145 million for crop substitution, the emphasis will continue to be on aerial spraying of herbicides to destroy the coca leaf. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a counterinsurgency strategy packaged as a counternarcotics program.
To Gen. McCaffrey, with a thin background in foreign policy and a mandate to win the war on narcotics, it must seem logical to reduce complex political, economic and social forces to one manageable target and attack it with military force. But is it too much to hope that experienced diplomats will grasp the elementary proposition that an insurgency that has acquired the strength and cohesion necessary to dominate forty percent of the national territory represents something authentic in the history of Colombia, something not adequately explained by references to illicit commerce?
Has it truly escaped senior administration aides that the Colombian civil war is more about massacres of civilians and selective assassinations than armed confrontation? Does it really not matter that to declare war on the FARC puts us in league with a Colombian military that has longstanding ties to the drug-dealing, barbaric paramilitaries that commit more than seventy-five percent of the human rights violations afflicting that violence-torn country?
It is curious that a government as sophisticated as ours should cling to the naive belief that spraying with herbicides can do anything but drive the campesino cultivators deeper into the jungle. The campesinos grow coca not just because it commands bonanza prices, but because the traffickers’ planes land nearby and pay cash on the barrelhead.
Alternative production — rubber and palm oil, for example — could compete because their prices, while lower, are more stable. But the isolated farmers cannot get their crops to the city. The $1.3 billion in the Colombia aid package for war could be more constructively used to build farm-to-market highways that would peacefully carry the government’s authority into this remote zone.
Nowhere in the official statements on Colombia will Congress find any discussion of risks vs. rewards or any measurement of objectives in relation to resources. Recall that in El Salvador, our bloody, divisive twelve-year pursuit of military victory proved fruitless. We finally settled for a UN-brokered accord that granted the guerrillas many of their demands.
The FARC-controlled territory that this program casually commits us to reconquer is twenty times as large as El Salvador — roughly the size of California. The Colombian military has no experience in carrying the war to the insurgents. What will happen when FARC troops, at home in jungle and savanna, repel the army and shoot down our helicopters? Will we then swallow the bitter pill of political-military defeat? Not if Vietnam and Central America are any guide. Far more likely we will plunge deeper into the quagmire.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company . (First appeared on Page A23 of The Washington Post, February 8, 2000.)
Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy in Bogota during 1972-1975. He is now president of the Center for International Policy in Washington.