A hallmark of the Clinton administration’s military commitment to Colombia has been to help Colombian officials curb narcotraffickers while staying out of the country’s long-running civil war.
President-elect George W. Bush may not be as fussy about drawing such distinctions. He could face a collision with Democrats over Colombia policy.
Under President Bill Clinton’s rules of engagement, leftist guerrillas are fair game if they are part of the drug trafficking infrastructure, but U.S. helicopters and other assistance should not otherwise be used against the rebels.
As Clinton sees it, drug trafficking poses a threat to the United States but Colombia’s 35-year civil war doesn’t.
The Bush team seems to think the current policy is too confining, a point made by Robert Zoellick, a top foreign policy adviser to Bush, in a no-press-allowed speech in late October.
“We cannot continue to make a false distinction between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts,” said Zoellick, a State Department aide in the first Bush administration a decade ago.
“The narcotraffickers and guerrillas compose one dangerous network,” he said.
A copy of Zoellick’s prepared remarks was made available by his office. His speech was delivered to a gathering of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Colombian rebels are believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars through their links to drug traffickers. The State Department recently cited evidence that Colombia’s leading rebel group supplied cocaine to a major Mexican cartel in exchange for cash and possibly weapons.
Zoellick suggested that future U.S. support for Colombia would depend on Colombian willingness to confront enemies of all stripes.
“If the legitimately elected leaders of Colombia demonstrate the political will to take their country back from killers and drug lords, and if the Colombian people are willing to fight for their own country, then the U.S. should offer serious, sustained and timely financial, material and intelligence support,” Zoellick said.
But if the incoming Bush administration tries to alter the ground rules along the lines suggested by Zoellick, it would almost certainly produce Democratic opposition, particularly from Sens. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Many Democrats believe the Clinton administration already is too deeply involved in Colombia, citing shortcomings in the human rights record of the Colombian military and its continuing links with rightist paramilitary groups that also have a reputation for brutality.
Zoellick sees the problem differently.
He said in October that the “forces of democracy” must join hands to combat “new threats to security,” such as that which exists in Colombia. His comments made no reference to human rights problems that Democrats find troubling.
The tougher line on Colombia was foreshadowed in an Aug. 25 speech by then-candidate Bush himself who said U.S. assistance “will help the Colombian government protect its people, fight the drug trade, halt the momentum of the guerrillas and bring about a sensible and peaceful resolution to this conflict.”
In those comments, Bush gave equal billing to the need to curb narcotraffickers and guerrillas. The Clinton approach has been to give prominence to the counterdrug aspect of the problem.
Clinton angered many Democrats in August by waiving a legislative provision which requires that Colombia meet certain human rights criteria before further U.S. assistance can be dispensed. A US$1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug package was approved for Colombia last summer.
Wellstone, in an opinion piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, delivered an appeal for no more human rights waivers.
“Next month,” he wrote, “the U.S. government must once again certify that Colombia’s military satisfies the conditions so that delivery of anti-drug aid can continue in 2001.
“This time, the Bush administration’s State Department must take a tough stance: no waiver and no aid until all human rights conditions are met,” Wellstone said. “Americans should not be supporting a partnership with a military that does not meet these very basic standards.”