News - Colombian quicksand

If the 'next Vietnam' arrives, will we notice?

Every American president sends the U.S. military into action overseas: Bill Clinton ordered the military into Haiti and Kosovo. George H. W. Bush ordered troops into Iraq, Panama and Somalia. Reagan ordered them into Lebanon and Granada.
The question is not whether George W. Bush will send the U.S. military into action during the next four years, but where. The most likely target is Colombia, where the U.S. is already heavily committed to supporting that government's war against its coca growers and leftist insurgents. In 2001, U.S. military aid to the Colombian Army and National Police under Plan Colombia will reach 1.3 billion dollars, the bulk of which will pay for 60 Blackhawk and Huey helicopters. Over 300 U.S. military 'advisers' are already on the ground in Colombia.
Domestic opponents of using the U.S. military have raised the specter of Vietnam so often in the past that it may have lost most of its power as a cautionary tale, but there are five ominous parallels between what is happening now in Colombia and what was happening in South Vietnam shortly before the major escalations of U.S. military involvement.
First, the politically viable foreign policy options are limited because the current policy has the backing of powerful military, intelligence and police bureaucracies; enjoys bipartisan support in Congress; and has been explained to the American public in the uncompromising, categorical language of good-versus-evil. When U.S. "Drug Czar" Barry McCaffrey proclaims that the U.S. "must free all people besieged by the tyranny of drug dependence," there is very little policy space left to allow the Colombians to work out their own political destiny without U.S. interference.
Geographic proximity to the U.S. makes the threat of "narco-guerrillas" more plausible in the minds of the public. Colombia is only three hours from Miami by air. Proximity satisfies the foreign policy thinking in the new administration that our military should be used only when it is in the "national interest," code for the conservative litmus test which would reject any humanitarian intervention like that of the Clinton administration in Kosovo.
The second ominous parallel with Vietnam is that, in Colombia, the U.S. is again underwriting a corrupt and brutal client government which has alienated so much of its own population that it has little chance of defeating either the leftist insurgents or the coca growers. The Colombian Army and the rightist militias it uses to carry out some of the worst human-rights violations have waged the kind of counter-insurgency war tailor-made to drive peasants into the arms of the left.
The military situation is so bad that large swaths of southern Colombia have been ceded as "demilitarized zones" in negotiations with insurgents. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with a guerrilla army estimated at 15,000, controls a 16,200 square mile demilitarized zone — an area slightly larger than Switzerland. Just as in Vietnam, sunk costs in a losing fight provide decision-makers with a compelling, if irrational, political motivation for continued commitment. Ending U.S. involvement would not only mean the tacit admission that vast amounts of aid have been wasted, but that the U.S. could not determine the course of events "in its own backyard."
Aerial spraying extensive tracts of southern Colombia with glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide, provides a third, especially grim parallel to Vietnam. Spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam resulted in continuing negative health effects among Vietnamese civilians and American veterans. Opponents of glyphosate spraying argue that not only will the food crop production and health of Colombian peasants suffer, but that it will also devastate their environment; Colombia's Amazonian and Andean ecosystems are believed to be home to 10 percent of the planet's terrestrial plant and animal species.
The fourth parallel to Vietnam is that Colombia's long porous borders with Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru make containing the conflict difficult. Just as the war in Vietnam destabilized neighboring Laos and Cambodia, the war in Colombia is likely to destabilize its neighbors.
The final parallel is that despite the deepening U.S. involvement in Colombia, the story goes largely unreported in U.S. media. Events in Europe and the Middle East normally eclipse events everywhere on the planet in television news, but coverage of the war in Colombia is conspicuously absent. Organized political opposition to the U.S. involvement in Colombia is still in its infancy. By the time the American public begins to pay attention to this war, the U.S. commitment may be so great that withdrawal may be every bit as painful as it was in Vietnam.
John Hickman is an associate professor of government at Berry College.

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