- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

U.S. election-year politics are helping Colombia at least at face value. President Clinton's new budget includes no less than $1.27 billion in new funds to help Colombia battle its burgeoning drug industry after years of resisting congressional requests to do so. Given the White House's unwillingness to significantly help Colombia in the past, it is important to ask why the president is moving now.

Colombia is just three hours away by plane from U.S. shores and supplies about 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. Last year, the president's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, told editors at The Washington Times that the drug situation in Colombia had become a "flipping nightmare." A review of how the White House has managed the delivery of approved equipment to Colombia highlights at least one of the reasons why the country's drug problem has grown so severe in recent years.

In 1996, the White House promised the House International Relations Committee to send Colombia 12 Huey II helicopters to aid its war on drugs. Those helicopters are crucial to Colombia's fight, since cocaine and other drugs are produced in remote, often high-altitude areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Of those 12 helicopters promised in 1996, 10 arrived only last year. The delay in sending the helicopters is unfortunately part of a much larger pattern. In October 1998, despite White House objections, Congress appropriated funding for six Blackhawk and 25 Huey II helicopters. Of those helicopters, none of the Huey IIs has arrived in Colombia and the three Blackhawks lacked the guns and armor necessary for combat for about 100 days after they were sent.

The White House has been equally delinquent in getting other types of military supplies to Colombia. Whether it be trucks, helmets or ammunition, delivery has been alarmingly slow. Despite this track record, the White House in January proposed new economic and military funding for Colombia. A total of $1.6 billion has been budgeted for the next two years.

As part of the proposed aid package, the White House recommends the purchase of 30 Blackhawk and 15 Huey helicopters. Interestingly, in the past, the White House has resisted congressional attempts to send helicopters to Colombia. In 1998 during a House hearing, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, New York Republican, told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright he hoped she would consider Colombia's need for helicopters to eradicate drug crops. "Let me say that I think there is some dispute as to whether those helicopters are needed or not," Mrs. Albright responded.

The White House has apparently changed its mind about Colombia's need for helicopters. As with so many White House decisions, a study of polling data provides useful clues as to why the administration might have altered its policy.

In a September survey conducted by the Mellman Group, a Democratic polling firm, 62 percent of those polled said they would spend money on technology to stop drugs from being smuggled into the country. A mere 27 percent said they would spend the money on advertisements to warn kids about the dangers of drugs. The final finding of the polling firm was that Democrats scored better than Republicans on all issues except keeping illegal drugs out of the country.

The White House has apparently heeded the opinion poll. Unfortunately, it acted only after the situation in Colombia became dauntingly difficult. Given the administration's previous history of irresponsible neglect, its last-hour proposal to aid Colombia's war on drugs is little more than political cover during an election year. If Mr. Clinton is truly concerned about the nightmare Colombia has become, he should at least make sure supplies get there on a timely basis.

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