Congress has granted the Bush administrationâ€™s full request to double the number of U.S. troops in Colombia. (See CIPâ€™s memo from earlier this afternoon.) Soon, it will be legal to have as many as 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen contractors in Colombia at any given time.
With lots of public statements and in publications with titles like Getting in Deeper, we have been warning for years that a key risk of U.S. policy toward Colombia, which heavily favors a military approach, is to “greatly deepen Washington’s involvement in Colombia’s intractable war.” While people told us back in 2000 that our talk of “slippery slopes” was hysterical, we now have objective proof that we’re right: by triggering the troop cap tripwire, the congressional committee’s decision makes our deepening military involvement quantitatively measurable.
It’s anyone’s guess how long it will be until the Bush or Kerry administration comes back to Congress asking for another increase. The argument will either be “the policy is failing, we need more troops” or “the policy is going great, let’s stay the course, we need more troops.” Either way, this is not the end of the troop cap debate.
This legislative defeat does hurt, though, because it was a close one. This was not a bipartisan steamroller like the Plan Colombia aid package in 2000; Congress was notably unenthusiastic about broadening one of our overstretched military’s overseas missions. The House, thanks to the efforts of Mississippi Democrat Gene Taylor, ended up giving the administration very little of what it had asked for in May, only 100 more troops and no contractor increase at all in its version of the Defense Authorization bill (HR 4200).
The Senate granted the full request, however, even though in June Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) managed to get 40 votes (the most votes the Senate has cast for a measure expressing any skepticism about Colombia policy) for a failed amendment that sought to do what Taylor had done in the House.
With a low revised troop cap in the House and a high one in the Senate, a conference committee â€“ basically, the chairmen, ranking Democrats and a few other members of the Armed Services Committees â€“ had to resolve the discrepancy. On the House side, committee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-California) was clearly in favor of the higher amount; however, his Democratic counterpart, Ike Skelton (D-Missouri), backed by Rep. Taylor, was solidly behind the lower cap. On the Senate side, neither chairman John Warner (R-Virginia) nor ranking Democrat Carl Levin (D-Michigan) had a strong opinion, though Levin had spoken on behalf of Sen. Byrd’s failed amendment in June.
The conference committee had to deal with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of differences on the Defense bill, which governs the entire $400 billion-plus Pentagon budget for 2005. Nonetheless, we understand that the Colombia troop cap, a relatively minor provision compared to things like base closures and multibillion-dollar weapons systems, was one of the last issues to be resolved because of a lack of agreement.
In the end, however, the Senate version won out. The likely reason: Senator Levin was not convinced that the issue was important enough to be stubborn about, and didn’t include it on his list of issues for which he would fight the Republican majority.
It’s possible as well that some of Levin’s staff actually favored the troop cap increase; Richard DeBobes, Levin’s staff director on the Armed Services Committee, is generally a strong proponent of U.S. military missions in Latin America. Look at the 2002 report of the “Board of Visitors” – which meets each year to review the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the successor to the controversial U.S. Army School of the Americas – which notes this sharp exchange between DeBobes and an activist from School of the Americas Watch.
Reverend Porter [of SOA Watch] â€¦ expressed the view that U.S. Government needed to apologize to the countries whose militaries were trained by the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) and WHINSEC, and the wish that the Board could help find a way ‘not to give license to students to abuse their power to kill.’ He told the Board that he and others honestly believe that students leave WHINSEC feeling empowered to commit crimes. â€¦ Mr. DeBobes took strong exception to Rev. Porterâ€™s statement about students ‘feeling licensed to commit crimes,’ suggesting among other things that there was no evidence for this charge.
But enough with the post-mortems. Over the next few days, the goal is to ensure that the troop cap increase is viewed not as yet another victory for the Bush and Uribe policies, but instead a moment for sober reflection about where the United States is headed in Colombia. Mission creep is not cause for celebration â€“ and in fact the Taylor amendment, the Byrd vote, and the conference committee’s deliberations represent a high-water mark for congressional skepticism about U.S. policy toward Colombia.