U.S. may spend billions in the world’s hottest spots
While Pope John Paul II made his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land and President Clinton visited nuclear rivals India and Pakistan last week, at least two other international hot spots simmered on the back burner. I refer to Colombia and Kosovo, both dangerous places where we are considering increasing our investment and involvement.
Congress will soon vote on a $1.6 billion security aid package for Colombia, a leading producer and distributor of illegal narcotics that is also wracked by civil war. Moreover, Congress will be asked to appropriate an additional $2 billion for United Nations peace-keeping activities in Kosovo, which is torn by escalating violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. What should Congress do on behalf of the American people, who will pay the bill and provide the troops for what the lawmakers decide?
In the case of Colombia, many congressmen are skeptical about the Clinton administration’s costly anti-drug plan, fearing a South American replay of Vietnam. The administration seeks a huge appropriation to help the Colombian government combat drug traffickers and the Marxist guerrillas who protect them in remote coca-growing areas of the Andes. Most of the world’s cocaine, and much of the heroin consumed in the U.S., are produced in southern Colombia where narcotics traffickers and leftist rebels control most of the countryside in Latin America’s oldest armed uprising.
The bulk of the aid will buy 30 Black Hawk helicopters to equip three U.S.-trained army battalions that will spearhead a rejuvenated anti-narcotics offensive. This means that we will send American “trainers” and “advisers” to the most unstable country in South America. That’s how Vietnam started – with a trickle of trainers and advisers that evolved into a river of blood that killed 50,000 young Americans.
“Who goes in if this thing blows up?” asked Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. “Tell me this is not Vietnam again.” On the other side of the aisle, Senate Democrats questioned the Colombian Army’s involvement with right-wing paramilitary death squads responsible for massacres of peasants. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) expressed serious concern about the Colombian government’s failure to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by paramilitary groups. Lautenberg said these groups are doing the military’s “dirty work” in an ongoing civil war that has killed more than 35,000 Colombians in the last 10 years.
Reports issued earlier this year by the UN and New York-based Human Rights Watch asserted that the Colombian Army hasn’t severed its ties to the paramilitaries as promised by President Andres Pastrana, a Washington favorite. U.S. aid to Colombia is subject to the 1997 Leahy Amendment, which prohibits military aid to governments that violate human rights.
At the same time, a top UN anti-drug official criticized the aid plan for containing “too much stick and not enough carrot,” and the Colombian rebels “declared war” on the U.S.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia warlord Raul Reyes talked tough to reporters in a Switzerland-sized safe haven in southeast Colombia that was cleared of government troops to create a forum for peace talks. The practical result of that move was to turn over control of one-third of the country to the Marxist guerrillas.
When I served in Colombia during the period 1973-76, the country’s drug problems were just beginning and Colombian officials still had time to crack down on narcotics producers and traffickers. For the most part they didn’t, however, as narco-dollars corrupted the government, law enforcement and the judicial system. Narcotics money was instrumental in the presidential campaign of Pastrana’s predecessor Ernesto Samper, who was denied a visa to visit the U.S.
Although Washington had high hopes for Pastrana, the son of a former president, his anti-drug efforts have been disappointing to many longtime Colombia-watchers. Writing in the Washington Post, Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer who served in Colombia and in the White House Drug Czar’s office, suggested that “the best result might be the collapse of the Colombian government” because it could “bring about a regional consensus for intervention and save the United States from spending or even bleeding alone while disingenuous neighbors cry, ‘Yankee, go home!'” Strong words but not unthinkable, given the current chaotic situation in Colombia.
And then there’s Kosovo. In a New York Times op-ed piece published last week, Senate Democratic patriarch Robert Byrd of West Virginia wrote that “it’s Europe’s turn to keep the peace” in Kosovo. “American and NATO peacekeepers skirt danger daily,” he noted, adding that “reconstruction has been negligible (and) Mr. Milosevic remains firmly in control in Serbia … (and) is stepping up his effort to foment trouble along the border between Serbia and Kosovo.” This is what we’ve been watching on the nightly news.
“The United States … won the war; the European allies were to keep the peace,” Byrd declared. He said any additional U.S. funding for Kosovo should be conditioned on “a plan for establishing an all-European peacekeeping force.”
I agree with Senator Byrd on grounds that there’s no national security reason for American troops to be in the middle of a European war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who will go on killing one another whether we’re there or not. Let’s hope the Clinton administration is listening to these timely warnings against involving American troops in unwinnable wars.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.