- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

The drum roll is trembling across the timpani of Congress. All the country and half the world watches to see if Congress will pass the President's Emergency Supplemental request of $950 million for Colombia.

That life-saving aid is now attached to a mammoth $9 billion dollar "emergency" supplemental mega-bill. The mega-bill even that piece dedicated to pulling Colombia and Northern South America back from a narcotics-dominated future is imperfect. Most appropriations bills are.

If these imperfections are allowed to scuttle the bill, the result will be a witches' brew of international resentment, domestic regret and mutual recrimination. Congress should reshape the bill in the Senate, adding key counter-drug assets but reducing the House mark, then both chambers should pass it without delay.

On counter-narcotics, the bill is absolutely essential. That said, it needs changes. The bill omits money critical to U.S. law enforcement agencies and allies operating on a shoestring. The drug war is an orchestral effort, and if three of the biggest U.S. players are forced to play with too few strings, the overall results will be disappointing. Specifically, the U.S. Coast Guard needs approximately $200 million to cover fiscal 2000 immediate anti-drug emergency readiness needs. Likewise, the Drug Enforcement Administration is in desperate for parallel funding, especially for personnel and intelligence. Finally, it is an open secret that U.S. Customs is in dire straits when operating internationally, and needs at least $400 million to cover Plan Colombia-related needs. For openers, Sen. Trent Lott should confirm these facts with heads of these agencies.

Other nations confirm these immediate U.S. needs. The bill is light, for example, on critical international intelligence collection assets, especially airborne early warning intelligence of the kind provided by P-3 AEWs. Today, the U.S. has only four U.S. Customs P-3s flying. These desperately need to be retrofitted with radar upgrades. As retrofitted, they will be taken out of service. Congress recommended in 1996, and then authorized in 1998, critical additional P-3 AEWs. Yet they are for reasons unexplained not in the supplemental.

Expensive AWAC planes are seldom deployed to South America, despite everyone's best intentions. Yet constant airborne information is essential if Peru's and Colombia's air interdiction policies are to be viable. This week, the Peruvian Embassy wrote just this in a private letter to Mr. Lott, saying Peru "would strongly urge you to include funding for U.S. Customs to build additional P-3 AEW aircraft, so that the Peruvian 'shootdown' policy remains viable." That is strong language, especially in the diplomatic community.

Peru made another important point. The economical Huey II helicopters which Colombia also needs for coca and heroin eradication and attack on coca labs, together with alternative crop development, are desperately needed to prevent backsliding. Peru wrote Mr. Lott of a need for "$200 million to boost the interdiction capabilities of our institutions and reverse the current trend in coca prices." Putting a fine point to it, Peru noted they had "repeatedly expressed these concerns to U.S. authorities," adding "we have stressed that our whole anti-drug strategy is seriously jeopardized and that the reinstatement of permanent monitoring flights over Peruvian airspace is urgently needed." Peru, Bolivia and Colombia might also humbly add that there is growing opportunity cost attached to U.S. inaction. Not spending wisely now on vital and less expensive assets will only lead to higher costs later.

With this supplemental, as with any true emergency aid, a non-decision is a decision. If Julius Caesar had sat on his side of the Rubicon and done nothing, the war with Pompeii would still have come just not on his terms. The region is in dire need, and what happens in Colombia, Boliva and Peru like it or not affects us directly. We must act wisely and decisively now.

Is the supplemental too big? Yes. But is that the result of a ghastly misjudgment about what is needed to pre-empt a titanic battle for control of the hemisphere, one already joined against powerful narcotics traffickers in Colombia? No. In this case, while late bloomers, the president's team has it right. Aid is vital, and the Senate will have one last chance to put a congressional stamp on the bill.

Regardless of the asset mix, and whether they go to the Colombian National Police or Army, Peru or Bolivia, this part of the mega-bill is incontrovertibly justified. Every year, we lose some 15,000 American kids to Colombian cocaine and heroin. At the same time, the U.S. has at least $7 billion in clean, productive investment in Colombia, generating upward of 20 percent of America's raw crude oil. We are dependent upon a stable Northern South America, and we should be morally committed to aiding allies who are committed to permanently ending the cancerous spread of drug-funded violence.

The right answer is simple. There is too much in this bill for non-emergencies. If there is a Vietnam-era quagmire growing, it is not Colombia; it is Kosovo. That, however, is a different story. The right course for Congress indeed the only prudent course is to remix the counter-drug bill to reflect real needs and best assets for the money. Then the Senate, and House Rules Committee, should set to stripping from the other $8 billion dollars what is not necessary. Peripheral needs should be collapsed into the fiscal 2001 budget. That is what fiscal conservatives in the House who recognize the gravity of the drug threat should do vote this bill out of the House, change it in the Senate, and revote a smaller package as the conference bill. This will take political acumen and interchamber agility, but the drum roll is already trembling across the timpani and time is of the essence.

Robert B. Charles was chief of staff and chief counsel to the House National Security Subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee (1995-1999), and was the chief staffer to the Speaker's Task Force on a Drug-Free America (1997-1999).

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