- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Fighting drugs when politically expedient

An annual spring rite takes place today in Washington a familiar pantomime in which the White House pretends to evaluate the cooperation of drug-producing countries with U.S. agencies in the fight against drugs. It will come as a surprise to no one that the process in reality is a completely political one that has but the most passing relationship with actual drug production and crime-fighting.
Naturally target countries find the process distasteful, patronizing and hurtful, as their ambassadors and foreign ministers will tell you before you even ask. And at the State Department, there's fear of offending important neighbors and allies. Accordingly, the countries responsible for the production and transfer of the vast majority of drugs entering the United States usually end up being certified for their cooperation, Colombia and Mexico specifically. The two are expected to get the stamp of approval again this year, even though Colombia accounts for 80 percent of cocaine reaching the United States. Mexico is the conduit for 75 percent of the white stuff moving across U.S. borders. Meanwhile, less important countries are sent to the corner for time-out, with the ignominious label "decertified" stuck on their backs. Last year's offenders, according to State, included Haiti, Paraguay, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
This year, the administration's certification dance provoked a letter of outrage from the chairmen of the international relations committees in the Senate and the House, Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Ben Gilman. In the letter, dated Feb. 24 and addressed to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Messrs. Gilman and Helms write, "The State Department's assessment of Mexico's anti-drug performance is simply not objective. U.S. diplomats are resigned to writing annual assessments to put Mexico's unsatisfactory cooperation in the best possible light. Our nation is ill-served when the bureaucracy feels obliged to help the President paint an inaccurate picture of a matter so important as Mexico's cooperation in the fight against drugs."
The letter echoes the findings of Roger Noriega, a professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who on return from a December trip to Mexico wrote in a staff report, "One U.S. official in Mexico City remarked that the task is to gather all the facts and present them in a way that does not sound as bad as they are."
At a press conference on Friday, held on his return from a three-day visit to Colombia, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Policy, made no secret of his dislike for the certification process, which is congressionally mandated to exert pressure on drug-exporting countries. Though he was to send his recommendation for Colombian certification to the State Department that day, Mr. McCaffrey also said, "I don't pay much attention to it, but it's the U.S. law. We've had 34 binational confrontations over it. What we need instead is multinational cooperation."
There is no doubt that Colombia has a problem and that it is also our problem. A civil war is tearing the country apart, conducted by narco-guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which are handsomely funded by the proceeds of the drug trade and are said to control one-third of the country. Astonishingly, representatives of the FARC were received with open arms and honors in Europe two weeks ago, traveling to Sweden, Norway, Spain and the Vatican (no meeting with the pope, though). Meanwhile, back in Colombia, the escalating level of violence caused by these people is appalling. Organized crime, guerrillas and paramilitaries are all fighting with one another, and the Colombian police and army are struggling to gain control, sometimes using none too refined methods, either. Millions of Colombians have fled to the United States and Canada, while an estimated three quarters of a million are internally displaced, according to Mr. McCaffrey. While production of cocaine is down in Bolivia and Peru, it keeps going up in Colombia.
The Clinton administration has only recently gotten behind aid to Colombia to fight the drug lords. One senses the prospect of an election coming up, and a dismal record in the fight against drugs being part of the Clinton-Gore record. Let's not forget that this administration's first act of government reinvention (Vice President Gore's pet project) was to reduce the staff of the office of the drug czar from 60 to 25, 10 of which were political appointees. To the new crowd in the White House, drug use was no problem.
The fact is that the Colombian government has pleaded for years for help in the form of U.S. helicopters to fight the cocaine producers in jungles of Colombia's south where the terrain is utterly impenetrable by land. Mr. McCaffrey says the Colombians will finally get them, and a total of $1.6 billion in aid to Colombia has been proposed by the White House. Right now, we have 200 military advisers in the country, prompting members of Congress to question whether we are in for another Vietnam-style quagmire.
Vietnam, however, was on the other side of the world. Colombia is three hours' flight from here, and the repercussions in the United States of what happens there are clearly felt. The American end of the problem is this: We have 5 million drug users, and not by any means all of them in the inner city. Three million Americans use cocaine. In fact, Americans consume one-quarter of all the cocaine produced in the world. The case of New York Yankees player Daryl Strawberry, who this week was suspended for one year for a third drug infraction, is just one highly visible example of a talent and career continuously messed up by cocaine addiction.
That the Clinton administration has failed to attack the problem head on so far will be part of the Clinton-Gore record. As for Congress, it needs to keep up the pressure, and not stand in the way when the White House finally seems ready to act.
E-mail: bering@washtimes.com

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