- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2000

That great Washington reporter James Reston once said that international crises "have their advantages. They frighten the weak but stir and inspire the strong." Today there is a crisis in Colombia that should inspire Congress to show its strength.

After years of inattention from the administration, the drug-fueled civil war in Colombia, a nation only three hours by plane from Miami, is going badly for the government. The specter of a consolidated narco-state so close to us has made it patently clear that our nation's vital national interests are at stake.

What happens in Colombia on the narcotics front affects every school, hospital, courtroom, neighborhood and police station across America. Eighty percent of the cocaine and 75 percent of the heroin consumed here comes from Colombia.

Illicit drugs from abroad cost our society more than $100 billion per year. 15,000 American lives are snuffed out by illicit drugs each year. The misery and suffering that Colombian drugs visit on American families is incalculable.

As my colleague Sonny Callahan has said, "If anyone thinks drug use in the United States is not emergency status, you better think again."

Colombia, the second-oldest democracy in our hemisphere, may not get any older. Profits from the staggering 120,000 hectares of coca and more than 6,000 hectares of opium poppy subsidize radical guerrillas who would overthrow the government. Yet until recently, the administration has ignored Colombia's pain.

In 1996, we in Congress warned of an emerging Colombian hero in crisis. In 1997, when Colombia surpassed Peru as the world's leading producer of coca leaf, our pleas for better helicopters and other resources to eradicate the Colombian illicit crop fell on deaf ears at the White House.

As the sun begins to set on his administration, President Clinton has finally turned to face the reality of the Colombian crisis. We welcome the president's emergency supplemental request for Colombia. As former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter eloquently noted, "Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late."

One hopes that American aid for Colombia is not too late to make a difference. That being said, the importance of the Republican-led Congress and the White House joining in support of this funding request must be recognized. We have to work together now to make up for years of neglect and inaction in Colombia.

Heroes like Colombia's police leader, Gen. Jose Serrano, want the United States to stand with them in their fight against the drug lords. The Colombian police have lost more than 4,000 men and women in the war on drugs, fighting for both their kids and ours.

Colombia is not asking for and nor should we offer American troops. We are, however, the only country in the world that has the courage and the vision to provide the equipment and tools the Colombians need to do the job for themselves.

A number of false analogies are now being drawn between Colombia and Vietnam. But as Ralph Peters, a former U.S. army officer and Office of National Drug Control Policy official, recently pointed out, "The greatest difference between Colombia and Vietnam is, paradoxically, that Colombia matters strategically and immediately to the United States."

Investing American aid dollars now to stem the hundredfold costs to our society is common sense and is the proper role for our federal government. We have the responsibility to eradicate these drugs at their source, as this aid package will do.

I support the emergency supplemental package for Colombia because it increases aid to the Colombian police's anti-drug unit, which has a proven track record as an effective ally. The package also provides sorely needed aid for the Colombian military, which will be administered in accordance with the Leahy human rights provisions.

I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this package when it comes to the House floor this week. Colombia's survival as a democracy and our own national security interests are at stake. Now is the time to be strong.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican, is chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

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