“He Knows Too Much” “People shouldn’t be living there”
Apr 262006

The Bush administration’s ability to portray failure as success – and to believe its own spin – is by now so legendary that it barely needs to be acknowledged here. From Tim Russert to Jon Stewart, commentators repeatedly note the yawning gap between perception and reality in current U.S. policymaking.

We know all about the divorce from reality in Iraq (“Mission Accomplished,” “pockets of dead-enders,” “last throes”), the blindness to Hurricane Katrina’s urgency (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,”), the denial of a human role in global warming (“There is a natural greenhouse effect that contributes to warming”), and the list goes on.

But this willful blindness to bad news – and resulting failure to change course – never ceases to amaze. Today’s exhibit A is an op-ed about Colombia that appears in today’s Miami Herald. Its author is Nicholas Burns, who as undersecretary for political affairs is the third highest-ranking official in the State Department.

“Stunning recovery warrants continued U.S. support” is the title. Burns argues that since Plan Colombia got underway five years ago, “the Colombian people have produced the single greatest success story in Latin America.” Arguing that “Colombia is clearly a better place than it was before we embarked on our joint undertaking,” Burns enumerates several claims for the success of Plan Colombia and U.S. policy, while speaking in the vaguest possible terms about remaining challenges (“there is still a war to be won in this strategically important country”).

Now, every government in the world tries to put the best possible face on its policies. And the Bush administration is probably concerned that a distracted U.S. Congress might be losing interest in funding Colombia to the tune of more than $700 million per year. And indeed Colombia has made some achievements, particularly in the area of citizen security – though that owes mainly to the Colombian government’s use of its own resources. (Most U.S. funds have instead gone to counter-drug programs, which protect nobody and haven’t even reduced drugs.)

Of course U.S. officials will do their utmost to put the most positive spin on something for which they’ve spent $4.7 billion since 2000. Of course they will try to play down failures and disappointments when communicating with the media or Congress (neither of which is paying very close attention anyway).

The danger here is that, as in Iraq and elsewhere, these officials actually believe their own spin, and then go on to make their decisions based on a highly distorted version of reality.

Let’s hope, for instance, that Nicholas Burns and others are not right now making policy decisions based on these arguments from today’s op-ed.

  • “Less than a decade ago, Colombia was a country under siege. Guerrillas on the left and paramilitaries on the right controlled wide swaths of its territory. Political institutions were corroded by drug money. And drug trafficking to the United States was at an all-time high.”

    If U.S. government officials fail to recognize that guerrillas and paramilitaries still control wide swaths of territory, that political institutions are still corroded by drug money (have they missed the DAS scandal?), and cocaine is even cheaper on U.S. streets than it was when Plan Colombia began, then they are designing a policy for a version of Colombia that only exists in their own fevered imaginations.

  • “Last week yet another murderous paramilitary organization laid down its weapons. More than 30,000 ”paras” have done so over the past two years.”

    To be more precise, 30,150 paramilitaries laid down 16,077 weapons (0.52 guns per person). Of those, all but 604 (2 percent) are automatically exonerated for any previous crimes. Worse, new paramilitary groups are forming in areas where demobilizations took place. The head of the OAS observer mission, Sergio Caramagna, said just yesterday, “We know so far that new groups are emerging in regions like Norte de Santander, Nariño, Antioquia and in rural zones like Puerto Libertador and Tierra Alta in Córdoba.”

  • “More than 300 criminals have been extradited to the United States during the Uribe administration.”

    However, some of the biggest drug traffickers – the AUC paramilitaries’ top leadership – will avoid extradition, thanks to the deal they struck with the Colombian government. It remains to be seen whether or not these individuals have actually stopped sending drugs to the United States. Meanwhile, during the past month witnesses have alleged that the Colombian Presidency’s own intelligence service, the DAS, has been helping some of the country’s most-wanted drug traffickers to avoid capture.
  • “Both common crime and human rights abuses are declining.”

    The claim about human rights abuses is simply inaccurate. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported last month that its Bogotá office last year “observed an increase in allegations of actions attributed to members of the security forces, particularly the army.”
  • “Together we seized more than 223 metric tons of cocaine in 2005 alone and more than 700 tons since 2001.”

    That is impressive, but is only 40.9 percent of the 545 tons that the U.S. Drug Czar’s office conservatively estimates were produced just last year in Colombia.

  • “We helped the government of Colombia eradicate more than 340,000 acres of coca and 3,900 acres of opium poppy in 2005.”

    Yet the U.S. government found more coca in Colombia last year than it found in 2000, the year Plan Colombia began.
  • “We have provided humanitarian assistance to more than two million people displaced by the conflict.”

    The U.S. government has spent about $210.1 million on assistance to displaced persons since this aid first began flowing in 2000. This impressive amount, if truly distributed among two million people, adds up to only about $105 per person – a few weeks’ worth of food. The figure of 2 million, incidentally, gives credibility to Colombian NGOs’ estimates of Colombia’s displaced population. The Colombian government contends that only 1.8 million people have been displaced by the conflict – less than the segment of the population that the United States claims to have aided – while non-governmental organizations insist that the number is much higher.

Burns ends his piece with a call on the U.S. Congress to maintain current assistance to Colombia. “We seek the support of the U.S. Congress to finish the job we embarked on together — creating a secure and peaceful Colombia for the benefit of both the American and Colombian peoples.”

We share this goal, and we hope that Congress does not cut aid to Colombia in 2007. But Congress should look beyond the inflated claims coming out of the State Department and consider a change in strategy. The policy’s results are much more disappointing than Burns’ piece indicates, and they demand a shift toward development, institution-building, citizen security and humanitarian assistance.

This Congress may simply respond to Burns’ appeal by applauding his “stunning” success and writing another big check for the same old strategy. (“You’re doing a heck of a job, Burnie.”) That would be another big mistake. If the U.S. government ends up making its decisions based on a version of events as wildly optimistic as this, blithely believing that big changes are unnecessary, then the policy will crash into cold, hard reality sooner rather than later – and the consequences will be disastrous for Colombia.

5 Responses to ““Mission Accomplished,” says State’s Nicholas Burns”

  1. jcg Says:

    I’m in general agreement. Especially with the need for a “shift toward development, institution- building, citizen security and humanitarian assistance.” However…

    “Of those, all but 604 (2 percent) are automatically exonerated for any previous crimes.”

    Apparently the most recent figure has jumped to about 1099 lately, and it could possibly continue to evolve. And though the rest (mostly though not exclusively footsoldiers from the looks of it) aren’t being actively prosecuted, they haven’t been necessarily exonerated of all other crimes. They could still theoretically face prosecution for past crimes not directly related to paramilitary activities, or generally for previous crimes that come in the light during the process.

    “The claim about human rights abuses is simply inaccurate.”

    I’d be inclined to agree…but I’m not sure about one thing; Maybe he is referring to all human rights abuses in general during this period, and not only those allegedly (to use the UN’s term) committed by the Army & co. during the past year.

  2. Javier Moreno Says:

    Curiously (or perhaps obviously), I got an e-mail today from Ximena Botero, somebody in the press office of colombian government, with the full text of Burns’ op-ed. No comment whatsoever. I guess that could be called making use of government infrastructure for electoral purposes (something theoretically forbidden by law), but they don’t care.

  3. jcg Says:

    Javier: I’m not a lawyer with experience on that specific subject, but that would depend on several factors…did you somehow sign up, even accidentally, to receive government information somewhere, online or offline? Sometimes one can unknowingly end up on government or company mailing lists in a technically legal manner. If not, then one would still have to prove that such information qualifies as electoral information, which isn’t immediately clear either (it might be a matter of common sense for you and me, but the law isn’t always a matter of common sense).

  4. James C. Jones Says:

    Far more stunning is Mr. Burns op-ed article, and especially the supporting evidence for his assertions. One wonders whether he actually believes them. If so, it’s a sad commentary on the intellectual quality of top-ranking personnel in the State Department. If he does not, then it has to be a cynical case of carrerism in support of a failed policy and of an Administration that can’t see how to deal with problems except with guns (and glyphosate). One can only deplore such carrerism and such policy, and lament that both reflect a deep and troubling corrosion in the quality of government in our time–James C. Jones

  5. Hugo Says:

    I’m not an expert on Colombia policy, just a now regular visitor to Cesar (where my wife’s family lives) — and as a thorough-going liberal, a reluctant fan of Uribe. I’ve posted about our visit last week here:

    http://hugoboy.typepad.com/hugo_schwyzer/2006/04/its_been_an_exh.html

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