- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

President Bush should turn his compassionate conservative perspective on Colombia, quickly. To help that country, the first thing he should do is dismiss some Clinton-era holdouts at the State Department.
Of all the globe's trouble spots, Colombia is perhaps the most worrisome for the United States and closest to its interests. As the situation in Colombia grows more severe, its problems are increasingly infectious. Rebel and paramilitary terrorism is undermining stability in neighboring countries, particularly Venezuela, where America gets most of its foreign oil, and Panama, of crucial importance because of the Panama Canal. Colombia has become an exporter of unrest, violence and illegal drugs.
Given Mr. Bush's understanding of the importance and potential of Latin America, the president must help Colombia combat its narco-terrorists. The first step is to put together the best team possible to address the challenges. Not only are the people Bill Clinton put in place at odds with Mr. Bush's foreign policy vision, they have proven themselves short-sighted and quite incompetent.
The first to go must be Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement, and Anne W. Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Colombia. Under Mr. Beers' leadership, the United States often failed to send the Colombians crucial protective gear (such as helmets), or sent faulty equipment, such as old ammunition, that imperiled the lives of officers and soldiers on the front lines of the drug war. This is no way to win friends down south, particularly since U.S. drug consumption is fueling so many of the country's problems. Mr. Beers is now advocating sending Colombia helicopters that were already rejected by Mexico as too damaged and unsafe to fly.
More importantly, though, Mr. Beers has misled Congress on a number of Colombia-related issues. Most recently, during a congressional hearing on March 2, Mr. Beers touted a $29 million spare parts contract for Colombian Black Hawk helicopters that he said the State Department was signing that very day. But when congressional staffers checked up on the claim, they found that the State Department hadn't contacted the contractor at all. When they notified the State Department with their finding, Mr. Beers' staff claimed their boss never made such a claim, contradicting hearing records. This is but one example of a pattern of misinformation.
The U.S. embassy in Colombia, meanwhile, has supported allocating much of the $1.3 billion U.S. aid for Colombia towards that country's military, while the police, which have a much better drug-eradication and human rights record, were allocated a mere $120 million. Although the military desperately needs U.S. training and financial assistance, U.S. economic support should be focused primarily on fortifying the rule of law in Colombia by aiding the police and backing judicial reform.
Not only would this approach be more effective, it would be more humane as well. The Colombian military remains a bumbling force that causes damage as often as it responds to problems. America's ability to help is limited, but it should at least put its money in the right place and its best people forward. Colombian lives and hemispheric stability are at stake.

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