Is help on the way?

Posted: Jan 12, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush was fond of saying, "Help is on the way!" Given the mess he is inheriting from the Clinton-Gore regime, that may be a tough promise to keep. William and Albert have bequeathed to Bush a contracting economy, an energy crisis, the worst Middle East violence in nearly two decades, and a potentially explosive war in a place nobody wants to talk about -- Colombia. But you wouldn't know this from the press coverage. Bush started last week with meetings in Austin, Texas, on national security issues. The masters of the media found the collapse of Linda Chavez's nomination as secretary of labor to be more exciting. By midweek, the president-elect was in Washington for detailed intelligence briefings and meetings with the joint chiefs of staff and outgoing and incoming defense officials. Their appetites whetted by the Chavez blood-letting, the potentates of the press shouted queries at Bush about former Senator John Ashcroft -- questions prepared by the "opposition coalition" in their effort to deny his appointment as attorney-general. Did they ask about the bloody war in Colombia, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives in the last eight years and threatens the stability of this hemisphere? No. Having served for several years as the poster-child for the politics of personal destruction, I'm not surprised by the media's reaction to the Chavez and Ashcroft appointments. I'm not even startled by efforts to dig up dirt on the darling of the incoming cabinet, Secretary of State designee Colin Powell. This is, as Chavez so eloquently observed, "a game of search and destroy." What astounds me is how long the media will ignore the horrific carnage in Colombia -- where the searching and destroying are daily occurrences with deadly consequences. What happened to the correspondents and "broadcast investigators" who swarmed all over Central America, covering every titillating tidbit about the Nicaraguan resistance? Where are the camera teams plunging into the jungle to report what's "really going on," and "what the administration isn't telling the American people"? I asked some of those who covered me -- and some I've come to know since being in print and broadcast news. None would agree to be quoted -- but the responses are revealing nonetheless. "It's a matter of money," said one news director, apparently indicating that the Clinton "economic miracle" didn't reach the television networks. But a reporter who covered Central America in the Reagan years was blunt: "Colombia didn't matter to Clinton, so it didn't matter to us." That may be true. But it had better matter to George W. Bush. Jimmy Carter handed Ronald Reagan a mess in Central America. The Nicaraguan Communists who seized power during Carter's tenure were, with the help of the Soviets and their proxies, fomenting revolution in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala when Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. Carter publicly counseled concession and appeasement while covertly authorizing the CIA to incite opposition. It took a decade to end the threat. Bill Clinton leaves a parallel predicament for George Bush in Colombia. Drug lords and narco-terrorists, subsidized by American cocaine and heroin users, have all but divided this hemisphere's second oldest democracy and threaten the stability of Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela, which exports 1.5 million barrels of oil each day to the United States. The Clinton administration encouraged Colombia's democratically elected President Andres Pastrana to negotiate with the narco-guerrillas. Now that negotiations have collapsed, the Colombian army is too weak to reclaim territory the size of Switzerland he ceded to the drug lords. Thankfully, the similarities stop there. George Bush has significant advantages in dealing with Colombia that Ronald Reagan never enjoyed in Central America: First, George Bush will have congressional allies like House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton, and Foreign Relations Committee champions Ben Gilman and Bob Barr, all of whom have visited Colombia to see for themselves what needs to be done. Second, the desperately underfunded and poorly equipped, but well-led and heroic Colombian National Police (CNP) have a well-deserved reputation for effectiveness in eradicating cocoa and heroin poppy fields while demonstrating a remarkable record of respect for human rights. The Bush administration won't encounter a buzz saw of opposition to increased support for the CNP. Third, unlike the "revolution without frontiers" that was sweeping through Central America when Ronald Reagan came to office, the Colombian maelstrom isn't Moscow's creation. It's made in America. Over 90 percent of the cocaine and 80 percent of the heroin that's consumed in the United States originates in Colombia. Deal with demand -- and drug lords will dry up and blow away. Finally, Congress has already allocated $1.3 billion to staunch the flow of drugs, restore order, and protect human rights in Colombia -- help that's already "on the way." Next week, it becomes the job of President-elect Bush to make sure that it's not too little too late.