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A Risky Policy Unfolds--and No One Is Paying Attention

January 21, 2001|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

WASHINGTON — At Donald H. Rumsfeld's confirmation hearing earlier this month, a remarkable exchange took place between Arizona Sen. John McCain, among the Senate's most respected foreign-policy experts, and the new secretary of defense:

McCain: "Recently, the United States made a very significant investment in the problems in Colombia, largely . . . unnoticed by Americans and their representatives. I take it from your [previous] answer--'I have less than well-informed personal views [on Colombia], which I'd prefer to discuss with the appropriate officials before taking a public position'--that you haven't paid as much attention to it as maybe other issues. . . . You know that we've just invested about $1.3 billion in the last appropriation cycle?"

Rumsfeld: "That's my understanding."

McCain: "And we're upgrading a base in Ecuador, which I found out--perhaps I shouldn't admit this--by looking at a newspaper."

Rumsfeld: "I didn't know that."

McCain: "There's a lot of things going on in Colombia, Mr. Secretary, and I hate to harken back to other conflicts, but I hope you'll get very well aware of this situation--what we're doing, what the involvement of U.S. military personnel is in the area and what kind of investment [and], more importantly, what goals we seek there. . . ."

In all likelihood, McCain had Vietnam in mind when he referred to "other conflicts," a conflict the former prisoner of war knows only too well.

Nothing evokes Vietnam more these days than U.S. policy toward Colombia. Many worry that the $1.3-billion anti-drug, mostly military aid package approved last summer by Congress--and the placement of several hundred U.S. trainers in the Andean country--could be the first steps on a slippery slope to a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Yet, as the McCain-Rumsfeld exchange sharply reveals, there has been scant public debate about U.S. Colombia policy, and there is little understanding about what it is supposed to accomplish. The bewilderment about Colombia policy can be juxtaposed with the country's relentless deterioration--and the high stakes of such deterioration for the United States. There is a wide gap between the urgency of Colombia's crisis and the relatively low level of attention it is receiving as the Bush administration takes over.

President George W. Bush and his foreign-policy team would do well to reframe and elevate the debate on Colombia. The exchange between McCain and Rumsfeld underscores how imperative it is to do so, and as quickly as possible. To guide a more productive policy debate on Colombia, it is crucial to ask some pointed questions, especially about two controversial issues: drugs and human rights.

Does it make sense to justify U.S. policy toward Colombia only in terms of fighting drugs? Is that Colombia's core problem? Or is it rampant insecurity and lawlessness, reflected in the more than 3,000 kidnappings--a record--that took place last year? Is it realistic to expect that the United States can solve drug-related problems at home by attempting to eradicate coca plants in southern Colombia? Should U.S. Colombia policy and U.S. drug policy be one and the same? How can U.S. policymakers better grapple with Colombia's complex realities?

With respect to human rights, what is the best way to help Colombians improve their situation? Colombia, whose internally displaced population is the world's third largest, following Sudan and Angola, is wracked by violence from many sources, including leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces. Beyond humanitarian, social and economic support, should the United States assist the Colombian military and police to contain and reduce such violence? If so, should the assistance emphasize the provision of helicopters and training of anti-drug battalions, or a broader, institutional reform and professionalization of government security forces?

In light of what is known about the military and economic power of the paramilitary forces--and the reported links they have with some elements of Colombia's military--what would be the likely consequences of cutting off all support to the security forces? Should Americans worry more about being tainted by a military with a troubling human-rights record or about how best to apply pressure and leverage to reverse the downward spiral in South America's oldest democracy?

These sets of questions should be fully discussed within the U.S. government, indeed, throughout U.S. society. Too often, the debate has been muddled, or trivialized, by references to numbers of helicopters or acres of coca destroyed.

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