LONDON — It is customary, when Washington says “jump,” for British governments to ask “how high?” When they don’t jump at all, their failure to comply should be treated with the same alarm as when one of those old pit canaries, kept in coal mines to detect the buildup of carbon monoxide, topples quietly off its perch.

The last time a British government resisted Washington’s demands to sign up for some foredoomed U.S. enterprise in the Third World was in the ’60s, when former Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to commit British troops to Vietnam. He was right, of course, but it is still remarkable that current Prime Minister Tony Blair is showing such resistance to letting Britain get drawn into Washington’s adventure in Colombia.

Blair has said nothing in public against “Plan Colombia” himself, but he has refused to buy into it, as have most of his European colleagues. And two weeks ago, he let a senior minister in his government openly condemn the U.S. plan.

British Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam, visiting Bogota earlier this month, was scathing about U.S. President Bill Clinton’s recent decision to waive congressional human-rights conditions and hand over $1.3 billion to Colombia anyway. European countries, she said, were refusing “across the board” to send aid that would be used for the military suppression of the drug trade until the Colombian military forces ended their human-rights abuses.

Mowlam also condemned the aerial spraying of fungal herbicides on drug-producing regions, with the high probability of poisoning local peasants, that is a major part of the U.S.-backed strategy. It would only be acceptable, she said, if the sole targets were vast coca plantations with nobody living near them.

Even so, Mowlam was much more tactful than the leaders of the countries that have common borders with Colombia. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for example, recently said, “That’s how Vietnam started. First 10 helicopters, then another 10.” (The United States is actually providing 60 helicopters to Colombia.)

Similarly, Alberto Fujimori, who has just resigned as president of Peru, effective next year, warned last month that an escalation of the fighting in Colombia “could generate a wider conflict, one in which the FARC (the Marxist-led Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces that are deeply involved in the cocaine trade) retreats into Peruvian territory.”

The first target of Plan Colombia’s helicopter-borne assault troops will be the region of Putumayo in southern Colombia, right next to Peru and Ecuador. So that’s where the refugees will go, that’s where FARC will retreat to — and that’s where the drug producers will move their coca plantations. Next on the list will be Venezuela, once Plan Colombia turns its attention to the coca plantations of Norte de Santander.

From the point of view of ordinary Colombians, Plan Colombia is likely to end the hope of a negotiated peace after almost 40 years of civil war, kill some tens of thousands of people who would otherwise not have died so soon, and drive some hundreds of thousands of refugees across Colombia’s borders with Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

From the point of view of Colombia’s neighbors, it will give them a huge refugee problem, and may move the fighting onto their territory. Worse, it will shift the mafias who control large-scale cocaine production onto their territory, thus corrupting their societies and destabilizing their governments, as Colombia has already been corrupted and destabilized.

And from the U.S. point of view, it offers the distant but plausible possibility that Colombia could turn into the next Vietnam. What it does not do is offer any prospect of halting or even slowing the flow of cocaine to the vastly lucrative domestic U.S. market, which is the foundation of the whole industry. That will never happen so long as the market is there: If they mash southern Colombia, the coca plantations will just move next door.

There is an alternative approach. Colombian Congressman Julio Angel Restrepo raised it last week in Ottawa, when he asked that the question of legalizing narcotic drugs be put on the agenda of a new forum of North and South American countries (with a membership identical to the Organization of American States, but including opposition parties as well as governments) whose inaugural meeting takes place in Canada next year.

“We believe the time has come to broach this subject,” said Angel Restrepo, pointing out that the old, failed approach was about to destroy his country without doing anything to alleviate the drug habits of North American consumers. He’s quite right, but several more countries will probably have to be destroyed before U.S. politicians are willing to consider ending drug prohibition.

In the context of domestic politics, this does not matter very much so long as the U.S. itself is not harmed. The odds are that the destruction of Colombia will not entail any such costs for the U.S., but nothing is certain in these matters. It never occurred to President John Kennedy, you will recall, that his carefully limited offer of U.S. “advisers,” weapons and money to Vietnam could ever escalate into a commitment of over half a million troops.

He was safely dead for several years before it happened. And whatever happens in Colombia, Clinton will be safely out of office for several years before we know about that, too.

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