- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2007

The visit to Washington this week by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, could not come at a more crucial time in our country’s relationship with our strongest and most consistent ally in the southern hemisphere.

However, in the absence of some genuine attention by the administration, including personal involvement by the president himself, and without at least a partial thawing of the cold shoulder given the Colombian leader by Democratic leaders during his last visit only a month ago, problems with our southern neighbors — not just with Colombia — will mount.

Colombia’s president has visited the United States many times during the nearly five years he has served as that nation’s popularly elected chief executive. Each time, it has been as a sincere friend, not as a pragmatic or temporary ally.

While in Washington, Mr. Uribe asks certain things of our government. Assisting Colombia in meeting those needs is as much a component of our national interests as it is Colombia’s. Yet, if one were to judge the relationship between our two countries by the chilly reception Mr. Uribe received last month from the new Democrat leadership in the Congress, and the lackluster support of the White House, one would likely conclude Colombia was an adversary rather than a friend of the United States.

As the world’s largest producer by far of cocaine, Colombia occupies a pivotal position in the U.S. effort to stem the tide of illicit drug trafficking in our country. While his predecessors offered lip-service and inconsistent support for American law enforcement’s efforts to seriously limit the cocaine coming to the U.S. from Colombia, President Uribe literally has placed his own life in danger by going after the drug production and financing networks that have taken hold in his country over the last four decades. In fact, on the day in August 2002 he was sworn into office, mortar attacks in Bogota targeting the presidential palace resulted in 21 deaths and 125 injuries to innocent civilians. Attacks on the civilian population continue, although the security situation in the major cities is significantly improved over that which prevailed when Mr. Uribe took office.



The Colombian leader has gone beyond going after the leftist guerrillas that operate hand-in-glove with the murderous drug organizations in his country. He also has moved vigorously against right-wing, extremist paramilitary organizations. While such efforts have proved vexing, given the difficult terrain in which all these entities operate, even Mr. Uribe’s critics admit his efforts against both right-wing and leftist extremists are genuine. The Colombian president’s leadership in this area has won him high marks as well from American military, law enforcement and diplomatic personnel.

Recognizing Colombia’s essential role in our country’s campaign against illicit trafficking in cocaine, the Bush administration and prior Congresses have responded to Mr. Uribe’s efforts by funding “Plan Colombia” to the tune over its seven-year lifespan of more than $5.0 billion. While critics interpret the fact that Colombian-processed cocaine stills arrives in our country as evidence Plan Colombia should be defunded or dramatically reduced, in reality this support for Colombia’s efforts will continue as an essential component of our anti-drug program. If Congress truly wants the plan work better, the solution would be not to dry up funding but to provide more flexibility for its implementation.

Still, the fact that Mr. Uribe’s efforts targeting right-wing paramilitary groups have not instantaneously and completely destroyed those groups apparently remains a stumbling block to securing support from many Democratic leaders on the Hill. The administration support for Colombia in recent months has been tepid, but it would be well-served to turn at least a small degree of its attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to Bogota, a mere three-hour flight from Miami.

If the Colombian leader is unable to secure funding sufficient to continue military and economic pressure against the left- and right-wing extremist groups still threatening his government, it will seriously weaken his efforts to keep Colombia securely in the camp as Washington’s key ally in the hemisphere. It will add fuel to anti-U.S. fires raging elsewhere in the continent.

To Colombia’s east, Venezuela, under virulent anti-American strongman Hugo Chavez, would certainly point to a failure by Washington to support Colombia as a sign that America will not support its allies in the region and that the better path is one in opposition to Washington. Despite U.S. efforts to portray Mr. Chavez as a fringe figure, he has many followers in the region who interpret his rhetoric in a light far more favorable than do we.

To the west, Ecuador’s leaders, too, are taking steps against U.S. interests, such as declaring that the agreement allowing American anti-drug and intelligence-gathering planes to operate out of the airbase at Manta will not be renewed when it expires in 2009. Colombia’s southwestern neighbor — Peru — also is watching closely how well President Uribe fares in convincing the Congress to provide meaningful economic and military assistance at this juncture.

A Uribe administration strengthened by renewed American anti-drug assistance and a Free Trade Agreement — the other key component of U.S.-Colombian shared interests sought by Mr. Uribe — will not likely result in a complete turnaround of regional anti-American actions and sentiment. But it definitely would stanch the bleeding. These days that would constitute a major victory.

Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and a former U.S. attorney there.

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