Clinton & Colombia: The Privilege of Folly

In foreign affairs, folly is the privilege of great powers, for they alone can be certain to survive it. Last month Americans embarked on a policy of exquisite folly: funding both sides of Colombia’s civil war.

For more than a decade now, Americans have contributed to the financial support of Colombia’s guerrillas. Each and every day in America, in New York and Los Angeles and other cities across the land, men and women carefully extract dollars from their wallets and purses and exchange them for plastic bags filled with cocaine and heroin. Daily, these small tributaries of bank notes come together to form a torrent headed south: millions of dollars a day, billions of dollars a year, pouring into the hands of Colombia’s drug traffickers and cultivators. And from that torrent a large stream is diverted, in the form of “taxes,” into the coffers of the guerrillas who increasingly control the drug-producing regions. These American dollars have made the Revolution-ary Armed Forces of Colombia—or FARC, as it is known—by far the richest insurgency in the world, providing them perhaps half a billion dollars a year, and have allowed Colombia’s 20,000 guerrillas to pose a serious challenge to its elected government.

This August, another great river of dollars began flowing south, this time from Washington to Bogotá. After President Clinton signed a waiver putting aside certain “human rights” requirements that the Colombians had not met, the first dollars of a $1.3 billion “Andean aid package” began flowing to the Colombian government, making Colombia, after Israel and Egypt, far and away the largest recipient of American aid. These dollars, which come from American taxpayers, will mostly be spent in the United States to purchase American military equipment, particularly helicopters, which Colombian soldiers will then use to fight the guerrillas, who are, of course, already well-armed with the weapons that American drug money has bought for them.

This assistance,” President Clinton announced in Cartagena, “is for fighting drugs, not for waging war.” If the President’s Colombian listeners found themselves puzzled by this assertion—how could hundreds of millions of dollars to arm and train soldiers engaged in a desperate civil conflict not be used for “waging war”?—they had made the mistake, as many in Latin America have done over the years, of thinking the American president was actually speaking to them. Mr. Clinton, of course, was addressing his remarks to those back home who might be worried about “another Vietnam” or “another Central America.” The focus, as so often, was not on “the crisis” supposedly to be resolved but on something wholly other, something elusive and misleading. In such contradictions and deceptions the Colombia policy perfectly embodies the American solipsism so often demonstrated in the country’s foreign policy.

Of the dollars Americans will now give to Colombia, more than three out of four will go to the military and the police, and of that money most will go to purchase weapons, including …

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