In 2002, at the Bush administrationâ€™s request, the U.S. Congress broadened the purpose of U.S. military assistance to Colombia (despite an unsuccessful 192-225 House vote to stop it). Ever since then, each yearâ€™s foreign aid bill has included a sentence permitting all aid given through counter-narcotics programs â€“ including helicopters, boats, and other lethal equipment â€“ to be used in a â€œunified campaignâ€ against both drugs and the three Colombian groups on the State Departmentâ€™s list of foreign terrorist organizations (the FARC, ELN and AUC).
This year, the Bush administration wants to expand the military-aid mission yet again. And this time it appears to have more than just drugs and guerrillas on its mind.
The proposed mission expansion is buried deep within the appendix to the proposed 2007 budget, available on the website of the White House Office of Management and Budget. (Go here, click on â€œDepartment of State and Other International Programs,â€ then find â€œAndean Counterdrug Initiativeâ€ on the resulting PDF file. A major hat-tip goes to the congressional staffer who pointed this out to me yesterday.) This is where the Bush administration tells Congress what its ideal foreign aid bill for 2007 would look like â€“ basically, they take the text of the previous yearâ€™s bill and show what wording they would cut and what they would insert.
The proposed language would expand the purpose of U.S. military aid to Colombia in three ways.
- Instead of a â€œunified campaignâ€ against drugs and specifically against the FARC, ELN and AUC, it would strike the armed groupsâ€™ names and replace them with the blanket term â€œterrorist activities.â€
- It would add a new, rather vague purpose for the use of U.S. counter-drug military aid to Colombia: â€œto address other threats to Colombiaâ€™s national security.â€
- It would allow all U.S. funds to be used for this expanded mission, â€œnotwithstanding any other provision of lawâ€ â€“ that is, any previous limits on the purpose of drug-war funding for Colombia (including past yearsâ€™ â€œunified campaignâ€ clauses) would disappear.
The administration might defend the first proposed change by arguing that the AUC could cease to exist this year, and though we donâ€™t know what might replace it, the United States must help Colombia to combat re-constituted or un-dismantled paramilitary structures. However, the term â€œterrorist activitiesâ€ is not sufficiently specific; as we have seen in Bolivia and elsewhere, the â€œterroristâ€ label is too often used against social movements. If the â€œunified campaignâ€ sentence must stay in the law, better language would read â€œagainst the FARC, ELN, AUC and any paramilitary successor groups.â€
Even more worrisome is the wording calling for counter-drug aid to be used â€œto address other threats to Colombiaâ€™s national security.â€ This definition is so broad that you can drive a truck through it. What â€œother threats,â€ beyond guerrilla and paramilitary activity, does the administration have in mind? Common crime and gangs? Street protests?
We all know what the most likely answer to that question is. The â€œsecurity threatâ€ the White House probably has in mind wears a red beret, has a big mouth, and runs the country just to Colombiaâ€™s east. It could only be Hugo ChÃ¡vezâ€™s Venezuela.
Itâ€™s hard to imagine Colombia needing to repel a Venezuelan invasion force, of course. But this may be the White Houseâ€™s attempt to respond to Caracasâ€™ large (and admittedly worrisome) recent arms purchases from Europe. It also would fit into the administrationâ€™s declared intention to isolate or contain Venezuela by partnering more closely with pro-U.S. governments in the region.
If Venezuela is indeed the rationale for this proposed legislative change â€“ and that is certainly how Caracas will perceive it â€“ it represents an unwise and irresponsible escalation of tensions in the Andean region. Venezuela could use it as a pretext to ratchet up its weapons-buying spree, bringing with it the specter of a destabilizing regional arms race.
Worse, it will be the first example since the Cold War of U.S. military aid being used explicitly to counter a political tendency in the Americas. We have said it before, and we will say it again and again: Confronting the spread of leftist politics in Latin America should not be a mission for U.S. military assistance to the region. The U.S. government must not view Latin Americaâ€™s militaries as a bulwark or counterweight against leftist political movements. We have made that mistake before with tragic consequences, and it must not be repeated.
This proposed military-aid mission expansion is dangerous and unhelpful, and Congress should scrap it.
The â€œAndean Counterdrug Initiativeâ€ section of the 2006 foreign aid law says:
In fiscal year 2006, funds available to the Department of State for assistance to the Government of Colombia shall be available to support a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, against activities by organizations designated as terrorist organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and to take actions to protect human health and welfare in emergency circumstances, including undertaking rescue operations.
The Bush administration wants to change that language to:
Assistance provided to the Government of Colombia with funds appropriated under this or any prior appropriations act may be used, notwithstanding any other provision of law, to support a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking and terrorist activities, to protect human health and welfare in emergency circumstances, and to address other threats to Colombiaâ€™s national security.