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Obama, Ignoring Local Outrage, Set to Expand U.S. Military Presence in Colombia

Obama continues to defend the expansion of U.S. military operations in Latin America, but against what threat?

Imagine that you live in a nice house in a tense neighborhood. Your neighbors haven't been too pleased with you lately, and you have a terrible roach infestation running havoc in your house. But perhaps there's hope.

A big, strong guy lives down the street, and is offering to help out. He has big guns and says he has just the spray to get rid of those pesky roaches if you just let him crash at your place.

I'm not the first to have used the tough-neighbor analogy when discussing a current proposal for seven U.S. military bases in Colombia, but others have failed to mention all the problematic side effects of inviting the neighbor to stay.

This neighbor has a very sketchy reputation and just may try to take advantage of your sister, not to mention raid your fridge and clog up your toilet. His presence will really upset your neighbors, even the ones with whom you have been friendly.

Although he says he's only staying at your house to help with the roaches and maybe intimidate the troublesome folks next door a bit, he always seems to get involved in other things: He traipses around in the neighbors' gardens and hassles his host's family members.  Besides, his record in getting rid of the roaches isn't all that exemplary.

Is it really worth it?

Perhaps this analogy simplifies matters too much, but I'm not the only one playing with rhetoric. Barack Obama continues to defend the expansion of U.S. military operations in Latin America, arguing that the U.S. is not establishing bases in Colombia but simply extending existing agreements with the country.

Under U.S. military terminology -- using euphemisms that call to mind George W. Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative" -- the proposals for Colombia would not be bases because they would not be property of the U.S, but instead be called Forward Operating Locations, or Cooperative Security Locations. 

Nonetheless, the U.S. would still have control over what happens in those installations, as it does in bases, and is insisting on immunity under Colombian law for its personnel. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner said it well when she joked to Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe last week, "Come on, nowhere in the world is a Gen. Fernandez going to give orders to a Gen. Johnson!"

The Colombian government has also been toying with words. The wordsmithing is apparent in a recent in a memo to the Colombian Senate explaining that the base plan is "a simplified agreement of technical cooperation and development of related bilateral agreements already in force."

Previous bilateral agreements, however, make no mention of U.S. military personnel being based in Colombia. So it's a bit of a stretch to claim this agreement is simply a matter of extending previous accords.

In Colombia, this renaming is part of the Uribe administration's strategy to slide the agreement through without submitting it to the Colombian Congress for approval. You see, the Colombian constitution requires congressional approval for international treaties and the submission of such agreements to review by the Constitutional Court, but not for extensions of previous treaties. 

Despite Uribe's effort to avoid congressional input, some in Colombia's Senate aren't too sure that they like the idea of inviting the neighbor to stay. 

Senators from the left-wing political party Polo Democrático have insisted on a public debate and are now fighting to have the administration submit the agreement to Congress, as the law requires.

The first session of the debate, held Tuesday, raised some very worrisome issues. Sen. Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Polo Democrático expressed concern that he and other members of opposition parties, investigative journalists and human-rights activists might themselves be in danger if the U.S. military sets up house in Colombia, given that a stated aim of the bases is counterterrorism.

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