Chopper wars

Coupon-cutting cronies in the Senate care more about helicopters for Colombia than the drug problem at home.

By Arianna Huffington

Published June 30, 2000 6:28PM (EDT)

A full three months after the House approved a $1.7 billion drug-war aid package for Colombia, the Senate finally passed its own scaled-down $934 million version. You might assume that the world's greatest deliberative body took so long because of a heated debate over the merits of further involving us in a country in the midst of a 40-year-old civil war or, indeed, over the merits of fighting the drug war through interdiction rather than treatment. But you'd be wrong. The delay actually had a lot to do with a Blackhawks vs. Hueys Beltway battle. Call it Chopper Wars -- a behind-the-scenes dogfight as absurd as it is revealing about what drives public policy.

The prize was a huge contract to manufacture Colombia's copter of choice. On one side were lobbyists for United Technologies, whose Sikorsky Aircraft produces the Blackhawks. On the other were lobbyists for Bell Helicopter Textron, which produces the Hueys.

The House had split the difference and approved a package that included roughly 30 of each aircraft, at a total cost of nearly $450 million. But despite the fact that the Colombian military, the Pentagon and the State Department made it abundantly clear that they preferred the high-tech Blackhawk to the smaller, slower, far less expensive Huey, bargain-hunting senators on the Appropriations Committee shot down the Blackhawks and settled for 60 refurbished Hueys -- a steal at the priced-to-move cost of $188 million. "There's no reason for anybody to be ashamed to fly a Huey into combat," harrumphed Appropriations chair Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., begged to differ. Usually a stickler on human rights and a proponent of a hands-off approach in Latin America, he has lately taken the lead on pumping millions in military aid to the Colombian army, one of the worst human-rights abusers in the world. Why? Well, it's probably just a coincidence, but Sikorsky just happens to be headquartered in his state, and through its parent company has -- also coincidentally, no doubt -- given Dodd more than $38,000 worth of combat aid (in the form of campaign donations) in the last election cycle.

Anyway, Dodd wasn't about to let his hometown helicopter go down without a fight. He took to the Senate floor and offered an amendment that would leave the choice of choppers to the "experts" in the Pentagon and the Colombian military -- a smooth move that would have guaranteed the Blackhawks would prevail.

After all, Gen. Fabio Velazco, the Colombian Air Force commander, is on record expressing his contempt for the Huey: "It's like comparing a '60 Ford to a new Mercedes." And Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez chimed in, clearly forgetting the adage about not looking a gift Huey in the mouth.

"When the Huey is coming," he whined, "the first thing you hear is the noise, even 10 minutes before you see it. It's a very noisy helicopter. With the Blackhawk, by the time you hear it, it is practically overhead."

But Stevens and his coupon-cutting cronies were undeterred. "The Blackhawks are the tip of a sword going into another Vietnam," he claimed, playing the Southeast Asian-quagmire card. Which raises the question: If 30 Blackhawks put us on the road to another Vietnam, where do 60 Hueys lead? Another Grenada?

In the end, the Hueys won the Senate dogfight, but the Blackhawks will clearly live to fight another day. As the House-Senate Conference Committee tries to reconcile the two bills, Colombia's ambassador to Washington has warned that his country will insist on the state-of-the-art Blackhawk.

As absurd as the Chopper Wars are, they are in keeping with the overblown rhetoric of the Colombian coke issue. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., announced that "Colombia is the heart of the drug war, and we'd better get on with it. If we lose Colombia, then we lose everywhere." It's the domino theory all over again, with coke instead of Communists.

Dodd was equally overwrought: "When we step up and offer the Colombian democracy a chance to fight for themselves, we're not only doing it for them, we're doing it for ourselves." Translation: "When we step up and offer a major campaign contributor a chance to make an enormous profit, we're not only doing it for them, we're doing it for ourselves."

But the crowning absurdity was the ongoing pretense that the Colombian aid package is about winning the drug war at home. If that were really the goal, you'd think all those senators looking to get more bang for their bucks would have relished the chance to vote for Sen. Paul Wellstone's, D-Minn., amendment that, had it passed, would have transferred $225 million from military aid in Colombia to drug-treatment programs in the United States. Treatment, after all, has proved to be 10 times more cost-effective than interdiction.

As if to underscore the futility of the drug-war package, Colombia's national police chief, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, who has been hailed on the Hill as "the best cop in the world," stepped down last Friday. "We'd rather see drug consumption drop than get any of this aid," he told the Associated Press.

If everyone knows that's how to win the drug war, then why are we spending more than a billion dollars in Colombia? And if everyone doesn't know it, why aren't we debating that instead of bickering over Blackhawks and Hueys?

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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