Aid to Colombia: What Do Bush and Gore Think?

There is something unsettling about the press coverage of the presidential race. When President Clinton signed a waiver of the human rights provisions imposed by Congress on the $1.3 billion drug war aid package to Colombia, not a single reporter bothered to ask the candidates -- one of whom, after all, will have to deal with the consequences -- what they thought of it.

Do George W. Bush and Al Gore support our becoming embroiled in a three-way civil war? We know where they stand on "family" (they're for it), but not whether they are in favor of more than a billion dollars being spent to fight a drug war abroad while 3.5 million addicts at home can't get the treatment they need -- or whether they endorse the cavalier abandonment of the congressionally mandated human rights benchmarks.

We'd like to know. But since no one in the media is asking, maybe each of the candidates should, on a daily basis, hold a press conference to tell the people they're asking to vote for them how they would deal with the key events of the day.

When the president and his drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, arrived in Colombia for a five-hour visit to symbolically hand a gigantic check to President Andres Pastrana, it would have been really useful for Gore and Bush to tell us how their drug war policies would differ from this administration's.

How much of his own man is Gore really? And how much will Bush be influenced by Enron, his 10th-biggest backer, which has major oil interests in Colombia? It's time for the candidates to be pulled back from pontificating on military preparedness in general and forced to address specifically their own preparedness to engage our military in the Colombian army's counterinsurgency campaign.

Sandy Berger, the president's history-impaired national security advisor, dismissed the parallels being drawn between Colombia and Vietnam -- the latter of which also began with the deployment of a few military advisors and more than a few million dollars in military aid. "I think you can get paralyzed by the foreign policy of analogy," he said. Berger, who seems paralyzed by the prospect of any ratiocination, would do well to keep in mind that, as Santayana put it, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Nor is Vietnam the only part of our past that should be remembered. As recently as March 1999, Clinton apologized to the people of Guatemala for America's involvement in that country's civil war: "Support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression was wrong ... The United States must not repeat that mistake."

He now proceeds to repeat that mistake. The evidence amassed by human rights groups overwhelmingly shows that the Colombian military continues to allow its paramilitary allies to massacre hundreds of unarmed civilians each year. And only two weeks ago, the army itself was responsible for an attack that killed six elementary-school children on a hiking trip.

"I don't know if President Clinton enjoyed apologizing to the people of Guatemala," Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International USA told me, "but he's all but guaranteeing that some future U.S. president will have to apologize to the Colombian people for the dirty little war we're about to escalate."

Just as that apology will sound familiar, so does the policy that will lead to it. Of course, administration officials continue to deny it. "There is no plan, and there is no proposal, and there is no idea of committing American forces in Colombia to do anything but ... provide training," said Thomas Pickering, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. There may be no "plan," but there are already five -- albeit very underpublicized -- American casualties.

Last July, U.S. Army pilot Jennifer Odom, copilot Capt. Jose Santiago and crew members Thomas Moore, T. Bruce Cluff and Ray Krueger were killed when their plane crashed -- or, as Odom's family believes, was shot down -- while on a top-secret reconnaissance mission in southern Colombia.

If you haven't heard about these military casualties of our drug war in Colombia, that was the intention. The flag-draped coffins arrived in the dead of night, in a ceremony that was closed to the press and unattended by any senior White House officials. Ironically, around the same time the administration was trumpeting the lack of body bags from Kosovo, five were quietly arriving from Colombia.

But if we can't get a true picture of what the future holds from our own leaders, we can at least look to the leader of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Fernando Tapias. "There will be peace," he said in a recent interview, "but first there will be war. With or without Plan Colombia, things are going to get worse."

And with more than $1 billion worth of gasoline poured on the fire, does anyone doubt that they are going to get a whole lot worse?

I, for one, would like to know if our next president has given it a thought.

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