Democratic Security’s fuzzy math When arbitrary arrests become death sentences
Oct 152004

John Kerry scored points in the presidential debates by using the focus group-tested term “more of the same” to deride George Bush’s plans (or lack thereof) for Iraq. Yet for the most part, “more of the same” appears to be what Kerry is promising for Colombia in a statement released this morning. The three-paragraph release praises Álvaro Uribe’s security policies and promises “to keep the bipartisan spirit in Washington alive in support of Plan Colombia.”

However, the Democratic candidate’s language does draw some distinctions with the Bush administration’s approach. Three are worth highlighting.

  • Kerry takes care to cite the twenty-seven recommendations for human-rights protection that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá office has been promoting for the past two years. The Bush administration has been loath to pressure the Uribe government to comply with all of these recommendations, or even to offer clear support for them.

    Kerry’s statement says he is “encouraged that the Colombian government has agreed to use the recommendations of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a framework for achieving the just peace that all Colombians deserve.” Unfortunately, that’s inaccurate: while Uribe’s adminstration has made an effort to comply with some recommendations, it has flatly refused to follow others. Bogotá has dismissed recommendations for a strict distinction between civilians and combatants (which would torpedo efforts like the government’s network of paid informants) and a prohibition on police powers for the military (the cornerstone of a constitutional amendment Uribe tried, and nearly succeeded, in passing earlier this year).

    The Colombian government freely acknowledges that it does not accept all recommendations. An oft-repeated phrase, which appeared in Vice-President Francisco Santos’ response to the High Commissioner’s annual report in March, reads: “Your recommendations are respectfully received. When the government judges that it cannot attend to them, this will be discussed frankly.”

    Give Kerry a point for invoking the recommendations, though. It’s the thought that counts.

  • The statement’s second paragraph includes very good language on impunity, breaking links with paramilitaries, and protecting human rights defenders. If a Kerry administration were actually to make these issues priorities in the U.S.-Colombian relationship, that would represent a significant change. Instead of more sunny declarations about how everything is getting better in Colombia, this would require a very tough stance the next time the State Department has to certify Colombia’s human rights performance.
  • Kerry may or may not be promoting a better balance between military and economic aid. Oddly, this depends on which version of the campaign’s statement you’re reading. They may have removed it by now, but for much of the day the Colombian Embassy had posted an earlier version of the statement on its website. In that version, the first sentence of the third paragraph reads

    In Colombia, we must not focus narrowly on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency, diminishing the critical importance of the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority in achieving a durable peace.

    This looks like a clear and welcome call to give more emphasis to non-military priorities. However, in the “final” version posted to the campaign’s website, this sentence has been softened considerably.

    In Colombia, we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency at the same time as we support the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority to achieve a durable peace.

    To this sentence, the Bush administration can simply respond, “we’re already doing that.” Why erase a key distinction with your opponent’s position?

Despite these differences in emphasis, support for Plan Colombia has been a consistent Kerry position since the Clinton administration developed the U.S. aid package in 2000. No flip-flop here. Kerry even spoke on the Senate floor in favor of Plan Colombia during the June 2000 Senate debate on the special appropriation.

His speech merits a second look. The Massachusetts senator was clearly wrestling with some aspects of Plan Colombia that worry him – the likelihood of sliding into counterinsurgency, the possibility that drug crops will move elsewhere, the human rights implications, the need to focus on drug treatment at home – but he ended up supporting the bill mainly because Colombia needed help, and Plan Colombia was the only train leaving the station. “Despite my reservations, the potential benefits of this plan are too large to ignore.”

When listing the “potential benefits,” Kerry offers an unremarkable recitation of the Clinton administration’s talking points at the time. Hindsight reveals that, by doing so, Kerry was gazing into a pretty cloudy crystal ball.

  • On the line between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency: “The line between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency is not at all clear in Colombia, but we cannot let this stop our extension of aid. … If human rights abuses continue, or if we begin to get embroiled in the counterinsurgency efforts, the Senate must remain vigilant, ending the program if necessary.” He adds later, “the United States is not in the business of fighting insurgents, we are in the business of fighting drugs.”

    Yet two years later, in August 2002, the Senate first approved language expanding the mission of U.S. assistance from counter-narcotics only to a “unified campaign” against both drugs and insurgents. Nobody in the Senate, Kerry included, even bothered to introduce an amendment to strip that language out. (In the House, Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Ike Skelton (D-Missouri) introduced just such an amendment and got 192 votes.)

    Today, despite his previous misgivings, Kerry’s statement argues that “we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency.” Perhaps that does count as a flip-flop.

  • On the U.S. military commitment: “Our military involvement in Colombia should go no further than this. Efforts to limit number of personnel are designed to address this.” Our military involvement has in fact gone much further, with U.S. military personnel now on a number of missions – from pipeline protection to Plan Patriota – not contemplated in 2000. Meanwhile, “efforts to limit the number of personnel” changed dramatically last Saturday, when Congress approved a doubling of the number of U.S. military personnel allowed on Colombian soil.
  • On other countries’ balancing out the U.S. overemphasis on military aid: “I appreciate the concerns expressed by my colleagues that the United States contribution to Plan Colombia is skewed in favor of the military, but we must keep in mind that our contribution is only a percentage of the total Plan. … As part of our contribution, and to balance military aid, the United States must continue to support Colombian requests for additional funding from international financial institutions and other EU donors.”

    For a variety of reasons, high among them a disagreement with our chosen strategy, European donors did not contribute significantly to Plan Colombia. The Colombian government’s Comptroller-General’s office (Contraloría) keeps the best record of this with a series of periodic reports. The last one (PDF format) tells us that, as of March 2003, non-US countries had announced donations of $320 million, programmed $272 million, and delivered $165.5 million in aid, nearly all of it non-military. That adds up to less than 10 percent of the mostly military U.S. contribution.

  • On the effect Plan Colombia would have on the drug trade: “Plan Colombia’s counterdrug focus will also benefit the United States by reducing the flow of drugs to the United States.”

    Unfortunately, as CIP has pointed out elsewhere (PDF format), there has been no change in the price, availability or purity of drugs on U.S. streets. Despite Plan Colombia, supply is meeting demand as well as it ever has.

In the end, promising “more of the same” probably makes tactical sense if the goal is to get elected in 2004, when a candidate must inoculate himself against charges of being “soft on drugs” and “soft on ‘narcoterrorists.’” There is also a need to appeal to the largely pro-Uribe, pro-Plan Colombia Colombian-American community in Florida, a state where peeling off even a few dozen votes can make all the difference. If he wins, however, let’s hope that Kerry distinguishes his strategy from the Bush approach with some changes that are more fundamental than what his statement presents.

One Response to “John Kerry’s statement”

  1. jcg Says:

    While some aspects of Kerry’s statement remind the reader of the policies implemented by Clinton, we live in a post-9/11 world and this is a time when counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency have been linked closest, in the public’s minds, since the end of the Cold War (that the affected insurgencies use terrorism easily decides the issue for most). Things have changed, for the better or for worse.

    The issue of counter-narcotics still remains on the table (and so it will, as long as prohibition is enforced), but it’s sitting far away from the limelight (bringing it back in would mean admitting that traditional policies have failed to significantly address it…).

    Even if Kerry highlights human rights, social development issues and the like, it will be difficult to push through any initiative with the “alternative (and at least as expensive, if not more, in practice) emphasis” that this site/the CIP advocates (and with which I would most likely sympathize with, despite some differences in reasoning).

    Then again, if Irak gets out of hand while U.S. forces are still rather heavily committed to the area, there might be an overall cut in aid to Colombia and other countries, but little else.

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