Losing Columbia

Posted: Mar 04, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- "This is not a closed matter," said an apparently unhappy Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as he left a high-level White House meeting last Tuesday. He had just witnessed rejection of the Pentagon's efforts to broaden the narrow focus, established by the Clinton administration, in dealing with the deepening disaster in Colombia. That means no increase in U.S. military aid and no intelligence-sharing with the beleaguered Colombian armed forces. The questionable peace process begun by Colombian President Andres Pastrana in 1998 is dead. Since their demilitarized zone was closed down, leftist guerrillas have gone on a rampage killing uncooperative civilians. Luis Alberto Moreno, the normally smooth-talking Colombian ambassador to Washington, was visibly shaken last Thursday when he pleaded with some 50 congressional staffers for help. Why did Moreno not go to the Bush administration? Already tried that, he replied. As the most imperiled Western Hemisphere country, Colombia might seem a particularly appropriate battleground for President Bush's war against terrorism. It is not. Non-combative policies of the previous administration remain unaltered. In Latin America, the legacy of Bill Clinton still immobilizes George W. Bush. When I visited Colombia on a 1996 reporting trip, U.S. diplomats laid out the Clinton Doctrine in blunt detail, as follows: The U.S. was not going to get involved in another Salvadoran anti-insurgency operation. If the FARC leftist guerrillas were about to take over the country, that was a problem for the undermanned, corrupt Colombian army. Only a threat from narcotics cartels would be opposed. And, they could not prove a narco connection to the FARC (though this was surely untrue). With the election of Pastrana in 1998 to replace a corrupt regime, Clinton administration support for Colombia strengthened but was always tethered to anti-narcotics justification. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon proposed changes. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, who once ran the Nicaraguan Contra office in Washington, pushed guidelines that would change the U.S. focus from counter-narcotics to counter-insurgency. Henceforth, the "basic security" of the country would be protected. Opposition was immediately voiced by the National Security Council (NSC) staff -- specifically its Latin American specialist, John Maisto. A career foreign service officer, Maisto as ambassador to Venezuela privately advised Congress not to worry about accession of the leftist populist Hugo Chavez to that nation's presidency. Yet, two days after Bush's inauguration, Maisto was installed at the NSC. He has unsuccessfully pressed for normalization with Communist Cuba but has proved successful in retaining the old Colombian guidelines. Maisto, Pardo-Maurer and other staffers (even note-takers) were shooed out of what became a "principals-only" meeting Tuesday. Included were Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Rice carried the day in rejecting the shift to counter-insurgency. Powell was described by administration officers as unhappy when Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post accurately reported the decision to shelve the Colombian aid proposals. But Powell has his plate full in trying to maintain the global anti-terrorism coalition. His top hand for Latin America, Assistant Secretary Otto Reich, has just come on board after being delayed by Senate Democrats for a year. Reich, who was a strong pro-Contra official during the Reagan administration, supports an anti-insurgency posture in Colombia. Bush's new policymakers at State and Defense feel Pastrana's granting of an immense demilitarized zone in Colombia to FARC, welcomed with such gratitude by the Clinton administration, was a horrible mistake that only strengthened the terrorists. Now, Pentagon officials contend the White House proposal for a special U.S.-financed Colombian Army brigade to protect the oil pipeline from guerrillas is unachievable militarily and a sorry excuse for a real anti-insurgency strategy. The pipeline tactic has been pressed by Rand Beers, a Clinton holdover as assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics. On Feb. 6, five House Republican committee and subcommittee chairmen wrote Beers asking whether stated efforts to help Colombian anti-kidnapping means the U.S. is changing its focus to anti-insurgency. In Clintonian style, Beers has not replied at this writing. The answer to their question remains "no," as shown by Tuesday's meeting. The tragedy of Colombia deepens.