Presidents who require that all major foreign policy initiatives undergo detached, searching analysis by foreign-policy professionals immediately make this world a saner and more secure place. In most cases, President Bill Clinton has done this. Overall, his record of confronting international crises with eyes wide open merits respect, even praise. In Northern Ireland, the Korean peninsula, and the Middle East, he has achieved solid progress toward peace through diplomatic support for negotiations and, in the latter two cases, by timely financial support to guarantee the durability of any agreement. These promising initiatives owe much of their success to the candor and openness with which the administration has conducted its diplomacy.

In Colombia, however, the limits on our power to intervene effectively have been ignored-a victim of Washington’s dotty war on drugs. Clinton may insist, as he did in Cartagena, Colombia on August 30, that his policy is only a counter-narcotics strategy. Colombians know better: while more than 2 million square miles of land is suitable for growing of coca leaf, only 1,000 square miles is needed to meet the world’s demand for cocaine. Thus, aerial eradication makes no sense except as a weapon to reduce the wealth of the insurgents in Colombia’s long-running civil war, who depend for a share of their income on the "taxes" they collect from campesino cultivators.

My fascination with Colombia goes back to the mid-1970s when I served for three years as deputy chief of the American embassy in Bogotá. As part of my duties, I coordinated the embassy’s counternarcotics program. Despite the considerable risks run by the highly professional agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency, our operations seemed always to misfire. We later learned that both the chief of the national police and the general in charge of the Colombian counter-narcotics program were in the pay of drug traffickers.

Over the last two decades, I have returned to Colombia many times, at first in the course of official duties, more recently as adviser to various congressional and private delegations. Of the three trips I made last year, one included a visit to southern Colombia, the area that is soon to be the beneficiary of massive American security assistance. As I flew over jungle and savannah and drove across the neglected countryside, I thought about the arrogance of our government’s refusal to take common-sense measures to cut domestic drug demand. Yet we will casually intensify another country’s civil war so that contract pilots can safely rain down herbicides over the fragile Amazon ecosystem. As Columbian President Andrés Pastrana said recently, economic and military pressure on drug-producing countries makes little sense unless the consumer countries, such as the United States, do their part.

Four major armies roam over Colombia, a country of 40 million people. Although the two guerrilla forces occasionally engage in combat with the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies, this war is more about massacres of civilians and selective assassinations than about armed confrontation. All sources agree that it is the paramilitaries who account for 75 percent of the killings. The conflict is deep-rooted, complex, and brutal. According to Alejandro Reyes of the National University, the history of the country can be seen as "a long, drawn-out struggle between large landowners and small peasants, between cattle-raising and subsistence agriculture, between [members of] a powerful privileged class who own most of the land and campesinos who lack any influence, resources, or access to credit." Of particular importance in assessing U.S. policy is Reyes’s observation that "guerrillas, like illicit crops, only become more entrenched when they come under attack." He has developed compelling evidence that "insurgents gather force and strength from state repression because the campesinos regard these military actions as directed not only against the guerrillas but against the entire rural population."

In El Salvador in the 1980s, the Reagan administration justified its military intervention on the grounds that the Salvadoran insurgents were not real revolutionaries, that they took up arms not in their own cause but only as hirelings of Moscow and Havana. In Colombia, the Clinton administration has proved even more imaginative. To overcome American reluctance to intervene in another country’s civil war, administration aides have written our drug-war priorities into a preexisting Colombian plan and represented the radically altered outcome as a Colombian request for military assistance.

The legislation authorizing the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package is titled, "Emergency Supplemental for Plan Colombia"; the key chapter is "Push into Southern Colombia." It provides funding for sixty attack helicopters, an array of dubious intelligence activities, and three counternarcotics battalions. In the explanatory text, Plan Colombia is described as "a counternarcotics initiative developed under the leadership of Columbian President Pastrana."

Truth is again the first casualty of war.

General Barry McCaffrey, U.S. drug czar and former commander of the Southern Command, has emerged as the administration’s leader on Colombia, and by his definition the crisis requires military action to interdict drugs. While all his statements taken together do not add up to a coherent policy, McCaffrey has repeatedly insisted that our intervention rests on the bedrock of Plan Colombia. Although Clinton has yet to make a major policy address on Colombia, he too has made repeated references to Plan Colombia. On May 17, at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, he said that Pastrana "has asked for our help to finance his comprehensive Plan Colombia to fight drugs, build the economy, and deepen democracy."

Pastrana was elected to the presidency on the strength of his campaign promises to end the war by means of negotiations and to transform Colombia by means of a broad-ranging reform program. Colombians were inspired by their courageous young president who, upon taking office in 1998, stated that the "peace policy of the government rests on four pillars: negotiation, political reform, tolerance (convivencia), and citizen security." This first version of Plan Colombia states that "its objective is to contribute to the achievement of peace through investment that will produce the social, economic, and cultural transformation of the critical zones of conflict, at the same time guaranteeing the preservation of the environment."

To the authors of the original Plan Colombia, the problem of illicit drug crops is inextricably bound up with the desperate struggle of campesinos to survive in a region of total government neglect. In their view, a negotiated settlement and the cooperation of the insurgents is a prerequisite for the transformation of rural Colombia through programs of land reform, massive investment in farm-to-market roads, schools, health centers, and access to credit. With this new cooperative relationship between the central government and local authorities, the campesinos’ dependence on illicit drugs will diminish and ultimately disappear. Dialogue with the guerrilla organizations and civil society is crucial to the success of Plan Colombia.

Nowhere in the original plan is there reference to the eradication of coca and poppy plants through aerial spraying or any other method that might harm the environment. Nowhere is there mention of a role for the military in the achievement of a negotiated solution. In fact, the Ministry of Defense is conspicuously absent from the list of state institutions with responsibilities for the execution of Plan Colombia. In both letter and spirit Plan Colombia constituted a rejection of the drug war and armed combat among Colombians. It can be read and, according to Colombian officials with whom I have spoken, it should be read as a declaration designed to bring an end to the national-security state in which the army, in conjunction with the paramilitaries, treated the insurgents as subversives, to the point that even revolutionary leaders who had laid down their arms to enter the political life of the country were routinely hunted down and assassinated.

In the first year of his administration, Pastrana’s bold negotiating strategy achieved one important success. In May 1999, the Colombian government signed a pact with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), clearing the way for formal negotiations. Termed the Common Agenda, the agreement calls for an end to the cultivation of illicit drugs and for redistribution of the huge estates purchased with drug money. It also requires the Colombian military to fight the paramilitary forces, funded primarily by large landowners involved in cocaine and heroin traffic. To get FARC to the negotiating table, Pastrana made a number of important concessions, including establishing a safe area for the guerrillas by withdrawing government troops from a large area in southern Colombia. Subsequent negotiations have repeatedly broken down. FARC’s commitment to a negotiated peace is uncertain. Trust between the two sides is at best fragile. Pastrana’s ability to keep the army in line, for example, remains tenuous.

Nevertheless, this was the moment for the Clinton administration to have come in with its billion-dollar aid package: 75 percent for economic and social assistance, and 25 percent for upgrading and professionalizing the Colombian military. This was the time to have launched a multinational peace initiative to create a surge of confidence inside the Colombian government that its plans for healing and reconciliation had been heard. Above all, this was the time to have sent a message to the guerrillas that the United States did not intend to intensify the war by concentrating aid on the Colombian military with its long history of undermining presidential peace initiatives.

Always distrust policy that depends for its legitimacy on the demonization of the enemy. The FARC are guilty of gross abuses of human rights. They kidnap rich Colombians and hold them for ransom; they attack remote police stations with bombs and other indiscriminate weapons that have resulted in many civilian deaths; and they assassinate suspected paramilitaries and people they believe support them. As a New York Times editorial put it, FARC’s "bad behavior and repeated snubs at peace talks have made Mr. Pastrana look weak and damaged the public consensus for negotiations." Pastrana, however, specifically rejects the term narco-guerrilla, used so frequently by McCaffrey and the Colombian military. To Pastrana, the FARC are authentic revolutionaries who seek political power through force of arms but who are open to negotiation and compromise. And he is correct that an insurgency which has acquired the strength and cohesion to dominate more than 40 percent of Colombian territory cannot be explained by references to illicit commerce.

When the Pastrana government approached the Clinton administration to seek funding for this bold but sound project, sympathetic if embarrassed State Department officials were forced to explain that the world’s richest power lacked the resources to nourish civil society. However, funds-almost without limit-were available to fight the war on drugs, and some minor funding for economic and social development could be subsumed under the overall American strategy of reasserting Colombian government control over the entire national territory. With unemployment in Columbia above 20 percent, with foreign investment disappearing and the credibility of his government sinking fast, Pastrana had little choice but to secure U.S. involvement on any terms he could get. Many human-rights activists in Colombia believe that the Clinton administration simply strong-armed the government to accept the military aid. This may be too simplistic. It is legitimate for Washington officials to insist that the receiving government consider U.S. priorities. Yet to secretly convert a peaceful negotiating strategy in Colombia into a military campaign, and then to represent the result as nothing more than our contribution to Pastrana’s original Plan Colombia, raises serious questions about the merits of the policy.

By September 1999, after a series of meetings between American officials and Pastrana, a revised English language version of Plan Colombia appeared with chapters on drug eradication and military force. It would to be months before a Spanish text would become available. The revised Plan Colombia is estimated to cost $7.5 billion, with the Colombian government to contribute $4.5 billion over the next three years. But Colombia’s treasury is empty and the chances of an angry, divided Congress voting for new taxes are nil. At a European donor meeting in early July, Colombians raised $621 million out of a hoped-for $1 billion, most of it in loans that must be repaid. That was the good news. The bad news was that of the twenty-seven nations attending, only three-Spain, Japan, and Norway-actually pledged support.

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of the U.S. contribution to the revised plan is for military aid. The clearest statement of how completely Washington’s priorities have overridden Colombian policy requirements came from Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering who, in October 1999, stated, "The peace process must support and not interfere with narcotics cooperation."

For the United States to conceal its role in turning Plan Colombia’s priorities on their head is to convince all who know the truth, including guerrilla leaders, that the Colombian government cannot stand up to Washington pressures. To fund a military campaign that involves the United States in another country’s civil war while insisting that the pursuit of a negotiated peace yield to the priorities of an unwinnable drug war makes neither ethical sense nor policy sense. Furthermore, by defining the Colombian crisis in largely military terms, we have undercut Pastrana and destroyed the platform on which he was elected.

In our democracy, controversial policies can achieve success only if they are made understandable by precision of language, clarity of objective, and transparency of purpose. Clinton’s Colombian initiative fails on every count. As Linda Robinson writes in World Policy Journal (Winter 1999/2000): "The U.S. using popular backing for the drug war to wage a veiled counterinsurgency effort, even though past experience teaches that policies founded on duplicity are bound to fail." Duplicity is not too strong a word. Of the many important books to come out of Vietnam and Central America, two of the very best were Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (Random House, 1989) and Ray Bonner’s Weakness and Deceit (Times Books, 1984). The titles tell the story. Although our military intervention in Colombia’s civil war is only in its beginning stages, our policy already displays those telltale patterns of official deception and distortion that presage failure.

Colombia’s long-running civil war and the flourishing drug trade will yield never to force of arms but only to a strategy that confronts the pervasive corruption of Colombia’s institutions, the intimate working relationship between its army and the paramilitaries, and the exclusion of the majority of Colombians from the country’s political and economic life.

The Clinton administration has failed to grasp that its response to the initial Plan Colombia was a life-or-death decision for the Pastrana government, and very possibly for the country as well. Instead, Washington treated Plan Colombia as a bargaining chip that forced Colombia to abandon the only approach that had any chance of success and replaced it with just another massive counterinsurgency operation that is already driving Colombia closer to the brink of economic and social chaos.

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.
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Published in the 2000-10-06 issue: View Contents
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