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Bush Finds His Vietnam

With the Bush White House asking Congress to remove all restrictions on aid to Colombia, the United States is poised on the brink of a decisive slide into endless war.
 
 
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In the Brentwood patio of Dutton's Books last weekend, under appropriately foreboding gray skies, I gathered with friends and admirers of author A.J. "Jack" Langguth to celebrate the new paperback editions of his two masterpieces. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, first published two decades ago, smartly tells the story of a young American nation forged in battle against a decaying empire. And Our Vietnam, winner of the Overseas Press Club Award in 2000, stands without question as the very best account of how that same America, two centuries later, ensnared itself in its own imperial hubris in Southeast Asia.

Reflecting on these volumes seems in order as the latest war news comes from the White House. Almost lost in the ongoing cable TV hyperventilation over imminent U.S. military engagement in the Philippines, or Yemen, or Iraq, is what is certainly the most decisive slide into endless war: escalated American intervention in Colombia.

This week, the Bush White House is formally asking Congress to remove all restrictions and increase U.S. military aid to Colombia. Through an initiative put in place by the Clinton Administration two years ago, the U.S. pumps more than $2 million a day into the war-torn country, providing scores of combat helicopters, shared intelligence, and hundreds of American military and private contract advisers and technicians. All this in the name of fighting drugs and deposing Colombia as the primary coca exporter in the world.

From the onset, critics of the plan feared there would be "mission creep," that the U.S. anti-narcotics battle would inevitably become a counter-insurgency war against the well-armed 35,000 leftist guerrillas who control more than a third of Colombia territory.

Those fears have now materialized. If Congress approves the White House request, more U.S. helicopters, arms, intelligence agents and military advisers will be directly engaged in what has been the interminable Colombian civil war. Given Congress' acquiescence on all things bellicose since 9/11, the Bushies have high hopes. "The administration is looking for a blank check, almost a Gulf of Tonkin resolution, allowing it to do whatever it wants in Colombia without any conditions or oversight," says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a D.C.-based think tank. "This is well beyond what Ronald Reagan enjoyed in El Salvador, where Congress limited the number of advisors and required at least the fiction of human rights improvements."

Plunging ahead into Colombia really is akin to racing into the proverbial dark tunnel. The guerrilla war in Colombia is now completing its fourth decade. All sides in the conflict -- the Colombian state, the leftist insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries -- have become enmeshed in the drug traffic. All these "armed actors," as they are politely called in-country, have abominable human-rights records.

And what has the U.S.-drawn Plan Colombia wrought in the last two years? Only sharply increased warfare, the breakdown of peace talks that took years to put together, and not a decrease but an expansion of coca cultivation, not only in Colombia but now also spilling over into neighboring Peru.

That's why Isacson argues that increased and unrestricted U.S. military aid is a "bizarre and dangerous misreading of Colombia's complex conflict, treating the guerrillas as the main problem rather than as a symptom of far deeper social and economic problems."

This "misreading" is what frightens me. This sort of self-delusion is the strongest parallel between Vietnam and Colombia. Read through Langguth's book on Vietnam (as I did twice this past year) and it's hard to discern any clever, diabolical logic behind the U.S. war. Instead, you find an American governing elite bamboozled, bedeviled and disoriented by its own propaganda. There they are: LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, McNamara and Westmoreland, trapped inside their own bubble of deceit and unable to escape lest they puncture what had become a national cold-war mythology. As early as '68 the White House knew there could be no "victory" in Vietnam, but the carnage machine continued to crank as presidents, generals and their advisers fought on -- motivated much more by inertia, ignorance, arrogance and crass domestic political calculations than by any grand imperial design. To understand this one, throw away your V.I. Lenin and crack open some Freud.

I doubt that two or three years from now we will see 600,000 American troops in Colombia, or any B-52 carpet-bombings or any herding of Colombians into strategic hamlets. But you can bet you will see a whole lot more dead Colombians -- tens of thousands of them if the war continues in its current uptick. For 38 years Colombians have been butchering one another in the name of political causes. How a couple of billion dollars of American involvement would change any of that is beyond me.

I've seen lots of earnest speculation about what drives U.S. policy in Colombia: defense of oil pipelines, concerns for regional stability and so on. But again, I see the coming escalation as the almost inexplicable product of not very bright politicians and planners who are prisoner to their petty political agendas. "None of this makes any sense from a strategic point of view," says Isacson. "There still hasn't been any thought to the huge scale of assistance that a counter-insurgency in Colombia will require. This is not Yemen or the Philippines. Colombia is many, many times bigger and thus has 'quagmire' written all over it. And the proponents of the aid package have no clear answers to those concerns."

But, hey, when did not having any answers ever stand in the way of Washington making life-and-death policy? While Clinton cynically wrapped Plan Colombia in anti-drug rhetoric, George W. Bush is now reselling the expanded initiative as crucial to the war on terrorism. Considering the Congressional Democrats' supine posture over these last six months, it seems unlikely the White House will have to stampede them into approving the dive into Colombia. Nowadays, all Bush has to do is stand on the congressional steps and whisper "Here kitty, kitty," and the Democrats come purring out and roll over on their backs anxiously awaiting a presidential pat on their tummies.

And yet, the Colombian case is so detached from the logic of intervening in Afghanistan, or Yemen or even Iraq, this seems the perfect moment for Congress to draw the line against the Bush juggernaut and Just Say No. Read Jack Langguth's Patriots and his stirring account of the Committees of Correspondence and the confrontation at Concord and you can imagine Congress calling on those traditions and actually doing the right thing. But read the same author's history of Vietnam -- with such levels of official venality and mendacity -- and you suspect they won't.