Good morning, Colombia

Turning loose a force of heavily armed mercenaries in the middle of a bloody civil war in the name of America's war on drugs is more than a misguided policy -- it's utter insanity.

Published July 16, 2001 3:45PM (EDT)

For more than a year, critics of our government's drug war aid package to Colombia (which now hovers at $2 billion) have been warning of the mission creep that threatens to embed us ever deeper in that country's four-decades-old civil war.

Well, the slippery slope just got greased, and a dreadful situation is about to get worse.

The House is about to vote on the $15.2 billion foreign operations spending bill. Buried amid the appropriations for many worthy and worthwhile projects such as the Peace Corps and international HIV/AIDS relief is a legislative land mine. The booby trap comes in the form of a couple of innocuous-sounding lines that could lead to a massive escalation of American involvement in Colombia's unwinnable war.

Contained in the section of the bill earmarking $676 million for "counterdrug activities" in the region are the following eye-glazing provisions: "These funds are in addition to amounts otherwise available for such purposes and are available without regard to section 3204(b)(1)(B) of Public Law 106-246: Provided further, that section 482(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 shall not apply to funds appropriated under this heading."

Got that? I didn't think so. Legislative gobbledygook doesn't get any gookier. But once the meaningless numbers and letters are decoded, and the statutory dots connected, the ominous significance of those provisions becomes all too clear. If approved, they would make possible the unlimited buildup of "mercenaries" and the removal of any constraints on the kinds of weapons they can use.

Under current law, the number of U.S. military personnel who can be deployed in Colombia has been limited to 500, and these personnel are prohibited from engaging in combat. But as politicians discovered long ago, there are two sides to every law: the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. As regards Colombia, our government chose the latter, carrying out a classic end run around the prohibition by funding a war conducted by mercenaries -- hundreds of American citizens working for private military contractors like DynCorp, Airscan and Military Professional Resources Inc.

At the moment, the number of such mercenaries is capped at 300. But the bill's first new provision, if it becomes law, would do away with this restriction. The other provision would remove language that says "weapons or ammunition" can be provided only for "defensive purposes" while engaged in narcotics-related activities. It's a deadly cocktail: unlimited private forces armed with unlimited weapons.

Congress has always zealously guarded its rights under the War Powers Act. But unless its members catch on, they could approve a privatized Gulf of Tonkin resolution without even realizing it's hidden in the giant foreign operations bill. And once the dogs of war have been unleashed, they're awfully hard to round up again -- just ask Bob McNamara.

This ongoing and furtive escalation directly contradicts the government's assurances that, as Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers put it last week, "Plan Colombia is a plan for peace." "From the beginning," he wrote in an Op-Ed piece, "we have stated that there is no military solution to Colombia's problems." Then why, pray, the need for offensive weaponry and unrestricted numbers of mercenaries?

To make matters worse, a new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals that U.S. anti-drug money spent in Latin America is being "funneled through corrupt military, paramilitary and intelligence organizations and ends up violating basic human rights."

Those who scoff at the idea that America's drug-fighting efforts in Colombia could lead to our becoming embroiled in a massive counterinsurgency war should take a look at a new study by the Rand Corp. that was commissioned by the Air Force. The study calls on the United States to drop the phony "counternarcotics only" pretense and directly assist the Colombian government in its battle against leftist rebels: "The United States is the only realistic source of military assistance on the scale needed to redress the currently unfavorable balance of power."

There is still the chance that Congress will refuse to go along with the statutory trickery that would make such large-scale "military assistance" all too likely. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., are considering an amendment to eliminate the new provisions before the foreign operations bill comes to a vote.

Turning loose a force of heavily armed mercenaries in the middle of a bloody civil war is more than a misguided policy -- it's utter insanity. It's imperative that our lawmakers defuse these provisions in the bill before they blow up in our faces and the cliché of "another Vietnam" becomes a sorry Colombian reality.

By 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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Drugs George W. Bush Latin America