Copyright 2001 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
April 01, 2001, Sunday, Final Edition
OUTLOOK; Pg. B02
A Plan, But No Clear Objective; General Powell to Secretary Powell: We Need to
and Kenneth Sharpe
Of all the unfinished foreign policy business Bill Clinton bequeathed to
George W. Bush, Colombia stands out as perhaps the most volatile and dangerous.
Later this month, when the 34 democratically elected leaders of the Western
hemisphere meet at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Bush will
have his first opportunity to fully articulate his policy toward Latin America.
His fellow presidents will be especially eager to hear what he has to say about
the growing conflict in Colombia, which has begun spilling into neighboring
Bush has endorsed Plan Colombia, which was jointly devised by the Colombian
government and the Clinton administration in 1999 to fight drugs in the
southern provinces controlled by leftist guerrillas. Clinton won congressional
approval for $ 1.3 billion in new U.S. aid to Colombia, for a total of $ 1.6
billion; Bush has proposed $ 400 million more.
When he met with Colombian President Andres Pastrana in Washington in
February, Bush pledged continued U.S. support -- economic as well as military.
Still, some administration officials have expressed qualms about getting bogged
down in Colombia. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said during his
confirmation hearing that the drug problem in the United States is
"overwhelmingly a demand problem," unlikely to be alleviated by increased military aid to Colombia. Rumsfeld's
deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has warned against deeper U.S. involvement there,
invoking the specter of Vietnam.
As the Bush administration formulates its policies toward Latin America and
Colombia's worsening crisis, no senior official will be more influential in
grappling with the diplomatic and military factors than Colin Powell. When he
was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Powell was known for advocating
caution and clarity of purpose before committing U.S. military forces abroad --
the so-called Powell Doctrine. Now, as secretary of state, Powell has the
chance to help craft the policy the military will carry out.
If Gen. Powell could buttonhole Secretary Powell, what advice might he give
him? Define a clear political objective, the general would say. Then make
certain the military's mission is clear and achievable. And make sure you have
the support of the American people.
Powell's thinking echoes Karl von Clausewitz's 19th-century treatise on
"On War," which maintains that war is a means of achieving a political goal, not an end
in itself. As Powell put it in 1992, speaking of Bosnia,
"You must begin with a clear understanding of what political objective is being
But what exactly is the objective of U.S. policy in Colombia? Is it to reduce
the flow of drugs into the United States? That's how former drug czar Barry
McCaffrey defended the increase in military aid and advisers under Plan
Colombia. Or is it to help the Colombian armed forces win their decades-long
war against leftist guerrillas, as some U.S. military officials have intimated?
U.S. policymakers have yet to clarify which of these very different aims is
paramount. Some policymakers want to fight drugs, and some want to fight
guerrillas. To satisfy both, Plan Colombia calls for fighting drugs in areas
controlled by guerrillas, even though that is not a sensible approach to either
If we could identify a clear objective, would our allies share it? The
Colombian military's central mission is to defeat the guerrillas. The drug war
has always been a sideshow -- a way to extract money from Washington, which
until now has been reluctant to entangle itself in Colombia's fratrici- dal
fighting, but has always found funds for counter-narcotic programs.
For the Colombian military to wage a concerted war on drugs, it would have to
attack the rightist paramilitaries as well as the leftist guerrillas, since the
paramilitaries are deeply involved in drug production and trafficking. The army
has a notorious history of providing the paramilitaries with arms, intelligence
and protection because they are the army's ally in the dirty war against
leftist civilians and guerrillas. Will the military betray this ideological
ally in order to prosecute Washington's war against drugs? Not likely.
Our regional allies are unanimous in their opposition to Washington's current
military strategy, fearing the war's escalation. Our European allies, who
Pastrana had hoped would provide several billion dollars in aid, regard the
military thrust of Plan Colombia as so misguided and self-defeating that they
refuse to fund even its social and economic components.
After Gen. Powell advises Secretary Powell to clarify the aim of U.S. policy,
we imagine he would insist on a clear and achievable military mission for U.S.
"Military force," Gen. Powell said in 1992,
"is not always the right answer. If force is used imprecisely or out of
frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse."
No close observer of Colombia believes that U.S. arms and advisers will enable
the military to defeat the leftist guerrillas who have held sway in remote
regions of the country since the 1960s. That is why every Colombian president
since 1980 has sought a negotiated settlement. Secretary Powell acknowledged in
January that the war
"will only be solved by a political solution, by negotiations." Bush, in his meeting with Pastrana, endorsed the ongoing peace talks, though
he rejected Pastrana's invitation for the United States to join the process as
Might U.S. military aid help foster diplomacy by weakening the rebels and
making them more willing to bargain? Perhaps, but the opposite effect is just
as likely. The Colombian military has consistently opposed civilian efforts to
negotiate an end to the war. It also has one of the worst human rights records
in Latin America, as the State Department's recent human rights report
documents. U.S. aid will only encourage the army's dreams of victory, stiffen
its opposition to negotiation and enhance its capacity to abuse human rights.
If there is no attainable military solution and if escalating the war will make
settling it harder, then military force is the wrong policy instrument.
Secretary Powell might protest that ending the civil war is not the central
objective of U.S. policy. Drugs are our target, and military force is
appropriate to the mission of eradicating coca -- the plant from which cocaine
is derived -- in southern Colombia. The guerrillas are defending the peasants
whose coca they tax; the police can't eradicate the coca without protection
against guerrilla attacks. Creating special counter-narcotics battalions
trained in counter-insurgency can accomplish this mission. Some 75,000 acres
have already been sprayed.
Not so fast, the general might reply. Eradicating coca production in Colombia
may be a policy goal, but it is not a clear military mission. Does it simply
mean eradicating coca crops in the southern provinces? That's the thrust of
Plan Colombia. But what about the plants and processing labs in northern
Colombia, protected and taxed by the paramilitaries? Or heroin production,
which is burgeoning throughout the country?
Plan Colombia ignores these other production points, making it hard to imagine
how it can significantly reduce the flow of drugs to the United States. And
when the fumigation of fields in southern Colombia drives producers and
traffickers into Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, will the U.S. military
commitment extend to these new fronts? To combat drug production wherever it
spreads requires an open-ended commitment to an ill-defined mission. Progress
will end up being measured by the drug war's version of body counts: acres of
coca fumigated, tons of cocaine destroyed, millions of dollars confiscated. By
these metrics, we will win every battle, but as in Vietnam, we will come no
closer to winning the war.
To win a war, Clausewitz argued, you must identify and attack the enemy's
"center of gravity . . . the hub of all power and movement upon which everything
depends." There is no such
"center of gravity" for the drug trade -- no command headquarters, no capital city. Cocaine,
heroin and marijuana are easy to grow, process, smuggle and sell. The trade has
low barriers to entry, requiring little skill or start-up capital. To
compensate for the risk associated with the illegality of the drug trade,
traffickers exact premium prices for a commodity that is cheap to produce,
creating huge profit margins that lure recruits into the trade at all levels.
The Colombian government arrested or killed most of the drug lords of the big
cartels in the early 1990s, but the trade simply fractured into dozens of
smaller cartels. The Bolivian and Peruvian governments significantly reduced
the acreage planted in coca in their countries, but production simply moved to
Know your enemy, the general would surely remind the secretary. Think hard
about who the enemy is and how military force is supposed to overcome him. The
enemy in the drug war is not a guerrilla army, or peasant coca producers, or
drug traffickers, or even drug cartels -- though at times the enemy assumes all
these guises. The real enemy is an economic market in which all these players
seek profit by selling drugs to the United States.
With overwhelming force, the United States might decimate the ranks of the
producers and traffickers, but the market for drugs is so lucrative that for
every profiteer we eliminate, another steps forward, drawn by the promise of
quick riches. That is why, despite Washington having spent billions of dollars
on drug eradication and interdiction over the past decade, more drugs enter the
United States than ever before and the street price of heroin and cocaine has
been falling for years. You can't use military force to repeal the laws of
The quintessential element of the Powell Doctrine, a legacy of Gen. Powell's
service in Vietnam, is the injunction never to commit U.S. military forces
without public support. The human rights and religious groups that were the
organizational core of opposition to Ronald Reagan's anticommunist policy in
Central America are virtually unanimous now in their opposition to Plan
Colombia. Last year, Plan Colombia faced significant opposition from liberal
Democrats in the Congress, even though it was authored by a Democratic
administration. It was approved, but only after the addition of stiff human
rights conditions, which Colombia has not met and Washington refuses to
enforce. The bitter policy battles over El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s
demonstrated that you don't need tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground
to unleash the kind of firestorm of domestic controversy that makes coherent
policy and sustained commitment impossible.
Obviously, vital national interests may sometimes demand that the United
States use military force in less than optimal circumstances. Powell himself
has said that his
"doctrine" is more a set of guidelines than a list of prerequisites. But when a policy
fails every test of the Powell Doctrine as completely as does U.S. policy
toward Colombia, that's a pretty good indication that it is a quagmire waiting
Gen. Powell would see that in a second and protest mightily against going down
that road again.
Secretary Powell should, too.
April 01, 2001