President Clinton's assurances that the United States will not get involved in the Colombian civil war that the United States already is involved in (with military personnel, equipment, training, financing, intelligence) make sense if you think of the helicopters as farm implements. The 60 transport and attack helicopters, and most of the other elements in the recent $1.3-billion installment of U.S. aid, look warlike. However, the administration says the aid is essentially agricultural. It is all about controlling crops _ particularly the coca fields that provide upward of 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the American market.
The law governing U.S. intervention includes this language: "The president shall ensure that if any helicopter procured with funds under this heading is used to aid or abet the operations of an illegal self-defense group or illegal security cooperative, then such helicopter shall be immediately returned to the United States." Imagine how reliably this will be enforced.
Conceivably, important U.S. interests are implicated in the Colombian government's fight with the more than 17,000-strong forces of Marxist insurgency in the civil war, now in its fourth decade, that has killed 35,000 people and displaced 2-million in the past 10 years. Political violence has killed 280,000 since the middle of the 19th century. Do makers of U.S. policy understand this long-simmering stew of class conflict, ideological war and ethnic vendettas?
They advertise their policy as drug control through crop extermination. The president, delivering the money that will buy military equipment, said: "We have no military objective." And: "Our approach is both pro-peace and anti-drug." As if the civil war and the anti-narcotics campaign can be separated when the left-wing forces that control half the country are getting hundreds of millions of dollars a year by protecting and taxing coca fields.
The U.S. policy _ peace through herbicides _ aims to neutralize the left-wing forces by impoverishing them. But already those forces are diversifying. The Wall Street Journal reports: "Armed with automatic rifles and personal computers, guerrillas often stop traffic, check motorists' bank records, then detain anyone whose family might be able to afford a lucrative ransom." There are an average of seven kidnappings a day, and the Journal reports that every morning Colombia's largest radio network "links its 169 stations with its stations in Miami, New York, Panama and Paris. It opens its lines to relatives of kidnap victims who broadcast messages they hope will be heard by their missing loved ones."
Speaking of diversification, does anyone doubt that, in the extremely unlikely event that Colombia is cleansed of the offensive crops, cultivation of them will be promptly increased elsewhere? In spite of Colombia's efforts, coca cultivation increased 140 percent in the last five years, partly because the United States financed the reduction of Bolivia's coca crop. However, the pressure on Colombia's coca growers is "working": Some of them have planted crops (and the seeds of future conflicts) across the border in Peru. And guerrillas have made incursions into Panama and Ecuador for refuge. And the price of cocaine in the United States has plummeted for two decades.
Will the United States ever learn? As long as it has a $50-billion annual demand for an easily smuggled substance made in poor nations, the demand will be served. An anecdote is apposite.
A presidential adviser was fresh from persuading the French government to smash the "French connection" by which heroin destined for America was refined from Turkish opium in Marseilles. Boarding a helicopter to Camp David to bring his glad tidings to President Nixon, the adviser, Pat Moynihan, who then still had Harvard's faith in government's efficacy, found himself traveling with Labor Secretary George Shultz, embodiment of University of Chicago realism about powerful appetites creating markets in spite of governments' objections. When Moynihan (who tells this story) told Shultz about his achievement in France, this conversation ensued.
Shultz, dryly: "Good."
Moynihan: "No, really, this is a big event."
Shultz, drier still: "Good."
Moynihan: "I suppose you think that so long as there is a demand for drugs, there will continue to be a supply."
Shultz: "You know, there's hope for you yet."
That is more than can be confidently said for U.S. policy in Colombia, which seems barren of historical sense. "The enduring achievement of historical study," said British historian Sir Lewis Namier, "is a historical sense _ and intuitive understanding _ of how things do not work." Such a sense should produce policy. Instead, the most that can be hoped is that U.S. policy in Colombia may, painfully and tardily, produce such sense.
George Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
Washington Post Writers Group