- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Fiddling while Rome burns may be too stark a metaphor. Bogota is not Italy and a saxophone is not a fiddle, but the fact remains: President Clinton stubbornly ignored the growing crisis in Colombia from 1993 to 1996, fought Congress on key components of aid in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and is now scrambling to offer token assistance under the guise of salvation. Bluntly, a mere $950 million as a supplemental emergency appropriation, to right all past wrongs, will no more save Colombia than a passing shower ends a drought.

Needed now is full funding for the 1998 Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act (WHDEA), passed by Congress, signed by the president, authorizing $2.3 billion to address the Colombian drug crisis, and never funded. Lessons learned from the way this White House has approached Colombia are illuminating. First, no administration can indefinitely "spin" a president's indifference to crisis in this case, drug-funded terrorism, rising U.S. purities of Colombian cocaine and heroin, and a civil war rocking the hemisphere. Second, unattended national security threats invariably fester, as Colombia's has. Third, palpable threats and real damage to American business abroad, American children at home, regional stability, foreign democratic institutions and a proud, beleaguered people cannot be kept under a basket the reality will eventually out.

The Clinton legacy in Colombia is hardening an open wound in international diplomacy, record-setting drug purities in the United States, rumblings of withdrawal by U.S. businesses, burgeoning instability across northern South America.

To this, the president now offers the satisfaction of feeling Colombia's pain. As a forest fire ravages hope, he extends the offer of seedlings and a fire hose. History will remember this moment differently. Offering a mere $950 million to right half a decade of mistakes will be rightly seen unless enhanced to the level of WHDEA as mere cover for future blame.

The president must do more. Colombia is the longest-lived democracy in Latin America, a First World nation with more than $7 billion in direct U.S. investment, an anchor of stability in northern South America. Why? First, large as it sounds, $950 million will not end the drug-funded insurgency that threatens democratic institutions in Colombia, and in concentric circles beyond, including those in Panama, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Second, an emergency appropriation at this level does not restore earlier deep cuts by President Clinton. Support for Colombia's counter-drug mission comes directly out of two U.S. aid accounts, one labeled "international" and the other labeled "interdiction." The former funds programs inside Colombia, including alternative crop development and law enforcement training and support. The latter funds U.S. efforts that directly reinforce Colombia's efforts to stop drug trafficking. These accounts were decimated in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996. The numbers say everything, and all current pain feeling aside they are incontrovertible.

In 1992, international counter drug funding stood at $660 million. That year was the top of the spending curve, and the sixth straight year of reduced drug use in the United States by teens, notably marking a 70 percent reduction in cocaine use since 1986. In 1993, the White House cut international counter-drug spending by $137 million; in 1994, it was cut by another $194 million. In 1995, it was cut by a further $33 million, and by 1996, it had fallen another $6 million to $290 million, less than half of the 1992 level.

At the same time, drug interdiction funding which assisted Colombia in battling back against drug-funded insurgents fell from $1.96 billion in 1992 to $1.51 billion in 1993, to $1.31 billion in 1994 to $1.28 billion in 1995, a drop of three-quarters of a billion dollars in three years.

In short, Colombia was less important than virtually anything else, despite a drug-funded civil war with high impact across our hemisphere. Last year, more than 14,000 young Americans died from illegal drug use, many at the hands of high-purity Colombian cocaine and heroin. That fact alone, confirmed by both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Drug Abuse Warning Network, a 21-hospital reporting system, should justify a strong response. But there is more.

The Colombian economy is home to many U.S. companies, and is tied more tightly to U.S. routines than most appreciate. If that economy falls, the impact will be felt well beyond Bogata. Colombia's GDP is nearly $100 billion in U.S. dollars, greater than the GDP of more than 20 American states, with a greater combined output than South Carolina and Iowa, equal to the outputs of New Mexico and the District of Colombia. Colombia is our fifth-largest trading partner in the hemisphere. Her main sources of wealth are manufacturing (dominated by petroleum), electrical power generation, high-end services, and agriculture.

Now, imagine the investment of multiple American states suddenly fleeing, or being overwhelmed by a narcotics-funded insurgency.

Most flowers in U.S. food chains are Colombian. Ninety percent of Colombia's coffee is shipped to the U.S., supplying 80 percent of the U.S. coffee market. Colombia is a base for U.S. oil companies that are household names Exxon, Texaco, and Occidental. Colombian oil powers American cars. Colombian diesel runs Amtrack. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. raw crude oil products come from Colombia and Venezuela.

Now, imagine awakening to news that this market of 38 million people, a market bigger than New York and Texas combined, has just been overrun or dived into depression.

That precise scenario worries leaders on Capitol Hill, and many U.S. businesses as well. In the past month, the narcotics-funded guerrillas, numbering an estimated 25,000, have toppled townships within 30 miles of Bogota. In July, U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey declared Colombia an "emergency." In August, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the majority leader of the Senate sought urgent action in a letter to the president. In January, the secretary of state finally visited Colombia.

Leading U.S. businesses, including Bechtel Enterprises, Occidental Petroleum, the Chubb Corp., United Parcel Service, Texaco and others, recently alerted the White House in these words: "Mr. President, we are witnessing a security, economic and humanitarian crisis of dramatic proportions in our own backyard… . The United States must respond expeditiously to support the Pastrana government given the desperate situation in Colombia and its vital importance to our national interests."

In short, time is running out. Having taken four recent trips to Colombia, three with the man who is now House speaker, my experience suggests six simple truths:

(1) This is a moment historians will look upon as seminal.

(2) Nine hundred fifty million dollars will not quench the rising firestorm.

(3) Funding the 1998 WHDEA might begin to reverse the region's mounting instability, beat the traffickers, and reassure U.S. businesses.

(4) With a nod to lessons learned, we need resolute presidential leadership.

(5) An admitted gamble: If the president leads big, with a cushion of twice the budget surplus he anticipated only one week ago, Congress should follow.

(6) The firestorm in northern South America is real, and it is upon us.

Robert B. Charles was a chief staffer for the House Speaker's Task Force on a Drug Free America (1997-1999), staff director and chief counsel for the National Security Subcommittee of the U.S. House Government Reform Committee (1995-1999), and has led four congressional delegations to Colombia from 1996 to 1999.

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