By Mark Danner
October 05, 2000
In foreign affairs, folly is the privilege
of great powers, for they alone can be certain to survive it. Last month
Americans embarked on a policy of exquisite folly: funding both sides
of Colombia's civil war.
For more than a decade now, Americans have contributed to the financial
support of Colombia's guerrillas. Each and every day in America, in New
York and Los Angeles and other cities across the land, men and women carefully
extract dollars from their wallets and purses and exchange them for plastic
bags filled with cocaine and heroin. Daily, these small tributaries of
bank notes come together to form a torrent headed south: millions of dollars
a day, billions of dollars a year, pouring into the hands of Colombia's
drug traffickers and cultivators. And from that torrent a large stream
is diverted, in the form of "taxes," into the coffers of the
guerrillas who increasingly control the drug-producing regions. These
American dollars have made the Revolution-ary Armed Forces of Colombia—or
FARC, as it is known—by far the richest insurgency in the world,
providing them perhaps half a billion dollars a year, and have allowed
Colombia's 20,000 guerrillas to pose a serious challenge to its elected
This August, another great river of dollars began flowing south, this
time from Washington to Bogotá. After President Clinton signed
a waiver putting aside certain "human rights" requirements that
the Colombians had not met, the first dollars of a $1.3 billion "Andean
aid package" began flowing to the Colombian government, making Colombia,
after Israel and Egypt, far and away the largest recipient of American
aid. These dollars, which come from American taxpayers, will mostly be
spent in the United States to purchase American military equipment, particularly
helicopters, which Colombian soldiers will then use to fight the guerrillas,
who are, of course, already well-armed with the weapons that American
drug money has bought for them.
"This assistance," President Clinton announced in Cartagena,
"is for fighting drugs, not for waging war." If the President's
Colombian listeners found themselves puzzled by this assertion—how
could hundreds of millions of dollars to arm and train soldiers engaged
in a desperate civil conflict not be used for "waging war"?—they
had made the mistake, as many in Latin America have done over the years,
of thinking the American president was actually speaking to them. Mr.
Clinton, of course, was addressing his remarks to those back home who
might be worried about "another Vietnam" or "another Central
America." The focus, as so often, was not on "the crisis"
supposedly to be resolved but on something wholly other, something elusive
and misleading. In such contradictions and deceptions the Colombia policy
perfectly embodies the American solipsism so often demonstrated in the
country's foreign policy.
dollars Americans will now give to Colombia, more than three out of four
will go to the military and the police, and of that money most will go to
purchase weapons, including eighteen highly sophisticated Blackhawk helicopters
and forty-two "Super Hueys," and to train a special Colombian
army battalion to carry out operations in the Amazon region where most of
Colombia's cocaine is grown—and where the guerrillas hold sway. Five
hundred American military advisers will be deployed "in-country,"
along with hundreds of privately contracted American technicians, to keep
the equipment maintained and to train the new "elite" battalion.
According to one Pentagon official, "the focus of these operations"
will be "everybody who's in the drug business—guerrillas, autodefensas,
or drug traffickers." These American dollars, despite what Mr. Clinton
has repeatedly said, will indeed be used for "waging war."
America's leaders, when they talk about foreign policy, increasingly find
themselves telling lies in order to evade the shadows of the lies their
predecessors told. Colombia resembles Vietnam and Central America most in
the deceptions deemed necessary to any public discussion of "our policy"
there; beyond that, it has been the very triumph of American power and American
wealth to make the tasks of "fighting drugs" and "waging
war" in Colombia inextricable. The insurgency that Colombian President
Andrés Pastrana faces may date back at least thirty-five years, but
the insatiable appetites and inexhaustible wealth of American drug buyers
were the "motor that jump-started the guerrillas into a new phase."
During the 1980s, when Americans learned
to enjoy cocaine, and began consuming, year after year, several hundred
tons of it, they set out on a path that finally threatened the Colombian
The solution to this problem, as devised by the Clinton administration,
is to send American money to the Colombians so that they can buy American
helicopters and hire American trainers to help their soldiers fight the
guerrillas, seize territory where coca is being grown, and destroy coca
plants, thereby reducing the amount of the drug available—which, supposedly,
will increase the price of cocaine on US streets, persuading Americans to
buy less of it, and thus reduce the flow of money returning to the guerrillas.
This "solution" merits scrutiny not simply because its success
seems so unlikely but also because it is on its face so outlandish, the
foreign-policy equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine.
Its impracticality is evidenced by a few statistics: although during the
half-decade "eradication programs" in Peru and Bolivia have been
"successful"—that is, they have reduced by more than half
the amount of cocaine being grown in those countries—"total production
in the Andean area has held steady."
of coca leaf, during this time of intense eradication, more than doubled.
Meantime, during the last decade, the price of cocaine on American streets,
which the eradication and interdiction efforts are meant to drive up, dropped
At most a determined eradication policy will push some cultivation over
Colombia's borders onto the territory of its neighbors; and indeed the Brazilian
foreign minister recently warned of a "spillover" onto his territory
from "a stepping-up of the level of conflict." President Pastrana
himself remarked, on the eve of President Clinton's visit, that if Americans
go on wanting drugs, "somebody else somewhere else in the world is
going to produce them. We are already getting intelligence reports of possible
plantings in Africa."
If interdiction and eradication seem doomed to fail as a "drug-fighting"
policy, why have the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress
joined together to send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colombia? Here
again we enter into the realm of illusion. Having for years treated what
was in fact a domestic problem—Americans' fondness for cocaine and
other drugs their government chose to forbid—as in large part a foreign-policy
problem; and having succeeded, at great effort and expense, only in pushing
heroin production from Turkey to Mexico and then to Colombia, and cocaine
production from Bolivia and Peru to Colombia, Americans have now managed
to create, in Colombia, a self-fulfilling prophecy—the domestic problem
of drug use has indeed become a foreign-policy problem: "Colombia's
democracy under siege." What better way to combat it than an aggressive
foreign policy cloaked in a domestic one?
The Clinton administration
would never have proposed sending more than a billion dollars to the Andean
region were not Colombia's government under great stress, and Congress would
never have approved the money were its purpose—to support the Colombian
government in its war against the guerrillas—frankly stated. America's
"war on drugs," whatever its effects on Americans who use drugs
or on countries that produce them, has been good to American politicians.
Since the time of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard
Nixon, taking a harsh line on drugs has been recognized as a lucrative political
strategy: above all, a way for politicians—particularly national politicians,
whose responsibilities have little effect on how local streets are policed—to
demonstrate that they are "tough on crime." To support sending
American money and American troops to help fight a murky foreign war remains
risky and unpopular; to oppose sending help which will supposedly prevent
drugs from reaching "our children" remains, especially during
an election year, a very difficult vote for an American politician to cast.
If a vote to "fight drugs" is poli-tically popular, or at least
difficult to oppose, why does the administra-tion need the Rube Goldberg
machine of eradication, interdiction, and the rest? "Fighting drugs"
abroad has always been the path of least resistance for American politicians.
The "drug dealer" has served as the necessary evil genius, the
"enemy" without which no metaphorical "war" can be convincingly
constructed. Imposing longer and mandatory prison sentences, greatly expanding
the "anti-narcotics" bureaucracy—these have succeeded in
putting a great many Americans in jail, but they have not eliminated the
taste of Americans for cocaine and heroin. And though there are signs that
Americans have tired of punitive drug penalties, a vote to fully fund treatment
programs—only one addict in three has access to a program now—is
still thought to be politically risky. Why face charges of "coddling
criminals"? Better to send the money south, to fight the drug dealers
in the jungle.
One might imagine the outlines of a wiser policy: building up the institutions
of Colombia's government with the help of foreign aid; bolstering Colombia's
legitimate economy by encouraging foreign investment and lowering barriers
that keep its products out of United States markets; launching a serious,
sustained diplomatic campaign (like the American efforts in the Middle East
and Ireland) to bring Colombia's civil war to a negotiated solution; and
greatly increasing money spent in the United States to reduce consumption
of illegal drugs by treating drug users and persuading Americans of the
harmful effects of drugs. But such a policy, however effective it might
be in reducing the violence in Colombia or Americans' consumption of drugs,
would not attract enough votes in Congress—certainly not enough votes
to pass a billion-dollar program, as "fighting drug dealers" in
an election year still can.
Self-delusion and hypocrisy are poor bases
on which to build a foreign policy. They may be useful, even seem necessary,
for a time; but if the policy encounters difficulty, or goes wrong, the
political support will prove as evanescent as the arguments that created
it. Colombia's war is complex, many-sided; its government is weak and,
in many areas where cocaine is cultivated, its authority nonexistent;
its officers and soldiers are badly trained and compromised by their involvement
with the paramilitaries, a force of more than five thousand who habitually
massacre civilians and who are themselves often supported by drug money.
The United States is leaping into a war that is likely to be long, complicated,
and bloody, without first offering its people a credible explanation of
why they should support it.
If things go wrong—if an American soldier is killed, or kidnapped—this
lack of explanation and lack of candor will be keenly felt. If a negotiated
settlement might seem within grasp, the American rationale for funding
Colombia's army—"fighting drugs, not waging war"—could
well constrain US diplomacy, leaving those American politicians who support
such a deal vulnerable to charges that they are "negotiating with
drug dealers." And if, as is most likely, this American-funded war
winds on and on, consuming more and more American aid and more and more
Colombian blood, there may come a time when an American president will
find it most expedient to turn and, with however great emotion, walk slowly
away. Americans will survive, their folly visited, as so often before,
on another people.
 See Alma Guillermoprieto, "Our New
War in Colombia," The New York Review, April 13, 2000.
 See Ricardo Vargas, "The Impact of
US Fumigation Programs," in Counternarcotics Policy and Prospects
for Peace: Eradication and Alternative Development in Southern Colombia
(George Washington University Andean Seminar/Washington Office on Latin