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 eighteen highly sophisticated Blackhawk helicopters and forty-two “Super Hueys,” and to train a special Colombian army battalion to carry out operations in the Amazon region where most of Colombia’s cocaine is grown—and where the guerrillas hold sway. Five hundred American military advisers will be deployed “in-country,” along with hundreds of privately contracted American technicians, to keep the equipment maintained and to train the new “elite” battalion. According to one Pentagon official, “the focus of these operations” will be “everybody who’s in the drug business—guerrillas, autodefensas, or drug traffickers.” These American dollars, despite what Mr. Clinton has repeatedly said, will indeed be used for “waging war.”

America’s leaders, when they talk about foreign policy, increasingly find themselves telling lies in order to evade the shadows of the lies their predecessors told. Colombia resembles Vietnam and Central America most in the deceptions deemed necessary to any public discussion of “our policy” there; beyond that, it has been the very triumph of American power and American wealth to make the tasks of “fighting drugs” and “waging war” in Colombia inextricable. The insurgency that Colombian President Andrés Pastrana faces may date back at least thirty-five years, but the insatiable appetites and inexhaustible wealth of American drug buyers were the “motor that jump-started the guerrillas into a new phase.”1 During the 1980s, when Americans learned to enjoy cocaine, and began consuming, year after year, several hundred tons of it, they set out on a path that finally threatened the Colombian state.

The solution to this problem, as devised by the Clinton administration, is to send American money to the Colombians so that they can buy American helicopters and hire American trainers to help their soldiers fight the guerrillas, seize territory where coca is being grown, and destroy coca plants, thereby reducing the amount of the drug available—which, supposedly, will increase the price of cocaine on US streets, persuading Americans to buy less of it, and thus reduce the flow of money returning to the guerrillas. This “solution” merits scrutiny not simply because its success seems so unlikely but also because it is on its face so outlandish, the foreign-policy equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine.


Its impracticality is evidenced by a few statistics: although during the half-decade “eradication programs” in Peru and Bolivia have been “successful”—that is, they have reduced by more than half the amount of cocaine being grown in those countries—“total production in the Andean area has held steady.”2 Colombia’s production of coca leaf, during this time of intense eradication, more than doubled. Meantime, during the last decade, the price of cocaine on American streets, which the eradication and interdiction efforts are meant to drive up, dropped by half.

At most a determined eradication policy will push some cultivation over Colombia’s borders onto the territory of its neighbors; and indeed the Brazilian foreign minister recently warned of a “spillover” onto his territory from “a stepping-up of the level of conflict.” President Pastrana himself remarked, on the eve of President Clinton’s visit, that if Americans go on wanting drugs, “somebody else somewhere else in the world is going to produce them. We are already getting intelligence reports of possible plantings in Africa.”

If interdiction and eradication seem doomed to fail as a “drug-fighting” policy, why have the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress joined together to send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colombia? Here again we enter into the realm of illusion. Having for years treated what was in fact a domestic problem—Americans’ fondness for cocaine and other drugs their government chose to forbid—as in large part a foreign-policy problem; and having succeeded, at great effort and expense, only in pushing heroin production from Turkey to Mexico and then to Colombia, and cocaine production from Bolivia and Peru to Colombia, Americans have now managed to create, in Colombia, a self-fulfilling prophecy—the domestic problem of drug use has indeed become a foreign-policy problem: “Colombia’s democracy under siege.” What better way to combat it than an aggressive foreign policy cloaked in a domestic one?

The Clinton administration would never have proposed sending more than a billion dollars to the Andean region were not Colombia’s government under great stress, and Congress would never have approved the money were its purpose—to support the Colombian government in its war against the guerrillas—frankly stated. America’s “war on drugs,” whatever its effects on Americans who use drugs or on countries that produce them, has been good to American politicians. Since the time of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon, taking a harsh line on drugs has been recognized as a lucrative political strategy: above all, a way for politicians—particularly national politicians, whose responsibilities have little effect on how local streets are policed—to demonstrate that they are “tough on crime.” To support sending American money and American troops to help fight a murky foreign war remains risky and unpopular; to oppose sending help which will supposedly prevent drugs from reaching “our children” remains, especially during an election year, a very difficult vote for an American politician to cast.

If a vote to “fight drugs” is poli-tically popular, or at least difficult to oppose, why does the administra-tion need the Rube Goldberg machine of eradication, interdiction, and the rest? “Fighting drugs” abroad has always been the path of least resistance for American politicians. The “drug dealer” has served as the necessary evil genius, the “enemy” without which no metaphorical “war” can be convincingly constructed. Imposing longer and mandatory prison sentences, greatly expanding the “anti-narcotics” bureaucracy—these have succeeded in putting a great many Americans in jail, but they have not eliminated the taste of Americans for cocaine and heroin. And though there are signs that Americans have tired of punitive drug penalties, a vote to fully fund treatment programs—only one addict in three has access to a program now—is still thought to be politically risky. Why face charges of “coddling criminals”? Better to send the money south, to fight the drug dealers in the jungle.

One might imagine the outlines of a wiser policy: building up the institutions of Colombia’s government with the help of foreign aid; bolstering Colombia’s legitimate economy by encouraging foreign investment and lowering barriers that keep its products out of United States markets; launching a serious, sustained diplomatic campaign (like the American efforts in the Middle East and Ireland) to bring Colombia’s civil war to a negotiated solution; and greatly increasing money spent in the United States to reduce consumption of illegal drugs by treating drug users and persuading Americans of the harmful effects of drugs. But such a policy, however effective it might be in reducing the violence in Colombia or Americans’ consumption of drugs, would not attract enough votes in Congress—certainly not enough votes to pass a billion-dollar program, as “fighting drug dealers” in an election year still can.


Self-delusion and hypocrisy are poor bases on which to build a foreign policy. They may be useful, even seem necessary, for a time; but if the policy encounters difficulty, or goes wrong, the political support will prove as evanescent as the arguments that created it. Colombia’s war is complex, many-sided; its government is weak and, in many areas where cocaine is cultivated, its authority nonexistent; its officers and soldiers are badly trained and compromised by their involvement with the paramilitaries, a force of more than five thousand who habitually massacre civilians and who are themselves often supported by drug money. The United States is leaping into a war that is likely to be long, complicated, and bloody, without first offering its people a credible explanation of why they should support it.

If things go wrong—if an American soldier is killed, or kidnapped—this lack of explanation and lack of candor will be keenly felt. If a negotiated settlement might seem within grasp, the American rationale for funding Colombia’s army—“fighting drugs, not waging war”—could well constrain US diplomacy, leaving those American politicians who support such a deal vulnerable to charges that they are “negotiating with drug dealers.” And if, as is most likely, this American-funded war winds on and on, consuming more and more American aid and more and more Colombian blood, there may come a time when an American president will find it most expedient to turn and, with however great emotion, walk slowly away. Americans will survive, their folly visited, as so often before, on another people.

This Issue

October 5, 2000