What better way to pass a dreary Wednesday afternoon than to stop by the Rayburn House of Representativesâ€™ Office Building for â€œPlan Colombia: Major Successes and New Challenges,â€ a hearing being hosted by the House International Relations Committee at 2:00 on the 11th?.
The Republican majority, which is empowered to call the hearing and to invite all speakers, has lined up six witnesses. The six represent a broad range of views â€“ from those who think that U.S. policy toward Colombia is going great, to those who think that itâ€™s going super-great.
The first to testify will be none other than the Speaker of the House, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois). Hastert took a strong interest in Colombia during the early to mid-1990s. During his days as a GOP backbencher, this former high-school wrestling coach became an energetic drug warrior, citing his desire to keep drugs away from kids like his former students. He traveled to Colombia frequently in those days, and was among a coterie of Republican representatives who (a) became quite enamored of the Colombian National Police (CNP), and (b) used the drug war as a weapon in partisan battles, frequently charging that Bill Clintonâ€™s administration was too slow to send helicopters to the CNP and increase fumigation â€“ and thus â€œsoft on drugs.â€
Now that those helicopters have long since been delivered, and fumigation has multiplied, you would think that Hastert and others would be chastened. After all, Colombian coca-growing is stuck at 1999-2000 levels, and kids like the Speakerâ€™s former students can find Colombian cocaine and heroin just as easily now as they could during the 1990s. Yet Hastert will be present on Wednesday to testify in support of the current policy, repeating things that others have told him second-hand, since he has not visited Colombia for some time.
The real message of Hastertâ€™s testimony is directed at congressional Republicans, who may be losing their enthusiasm for Plan Colombia. â€œIf you oppose the current policy,â€ Hastert wants to make clear, â€œyou are running afoul of the party leadership.â€ And the Republican leadership has shown itself willing to deal quite severely with any loose cannons among its ranks.
Next will be Drug Czar John Walters, prepared to give an objective evaluation of the programs that his own office has promoted and coordinated. In addition to cheerleading for Plan Colombia, maybe Walters will add to his string of predictions about when the price of cocaine is expected to rise.
- July 2003: â€œWe expect to see in the next 6 to 9 months significant disruptions in the purity and availability of cocaine throughout the world.â€
- August 2004: â€œThese gains have allowed us to, for the first time, have intelligence estimates â€¦ that in the next 12 months we will see changes in the availability of cocaine in the United States.â€
For the real story, look at the â€œNational Drug Threat Assessment,â€ published in February by the Justice Departmentâ€™s National Drug Intelligence Center.
â€œKey indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the countryâ€¦ Heroin is readily available in most major metropolitan areas in the United States, and availability remains relatively stableâ€¦ [H]eroin availability continues to increase in rural and suburban areas.â€
Walters will be followed by a panel of four representatives of agencies whose budgets and reputations depend on putting the best possible spin on events: USAID, the State Departmentâ€™s Western Hemisphere and International Narcotics bureaus, and the Department of Homeland Security.
What about those who have a more critical â€“ and more realistic â€“ view of Plan Colombia, its results (or lack thereof), and what should be done instead? Weâ€™ll be there – sitting quietly in the audience of the hearing room, and talking to anyone who will listen in the hallway outside.
Why the lack of real debate on such a controversial policy? Who knows. Maybe they’re feeling insecure and need to reassure each other. Maybe they’re circling the wagons after a rash of bad news (no coca reduction, FARC counter-offensive, GIs arrested, etc.). Let’s hope that even though the deck is stacked, the many congressional critics – particularly Democrats on the committee – show up, make strong statements and ask tough questions. Unless Representatives who question the policy make a good showing, it promises to be a dreary afternoon indeed.