Plan Colombia: Success & Ambiguity in Foreign Affairs

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was in DC recently, to discuss how U.S. aid to his country will shift as the government negotiates with the FARC and Plan Colombia winds down. It should studied carefully, because it is that seemingly rare thing, U.S. foreign policy success on a security issue. When Plan Colombia started under President Clinton, the terrorist FARC was an existential threat to the state, as well as one of the world’s largest drug trafficking organizations. Colombia faced a real risk of becoming a failed state.

Now, a decade and a half later the FARC has been dramatically reduced having suffered innumerable reverses, from the dramatic rescue of its most famous hostage to the violent deaths of many of its top leaders. All of these failures reflect massive penetration into FARC’s communications and decision-making networks. They are engaged in peace negotiations and it appears likely that the conflict is finally, thankfully, winding down.

Unfortunately Colombia has not been transformed into a developed first world country. Nor has it stopped exporting drugs on a massive scale, with the attendant violence and corruption. Colombia, despite strong economic growth, continues to be mired in poverty, the justice system is imperfect, the security forces undoubtedly did terrible things – directly or by proxy – in the process of fighting the insurgency. Colombia will be wrestling with massive internal refugee crises for a long time to come.

Still, defeating the FARC was well worth doing. A vicious ideological group undermining a state is worse than huge criminal cartels. Their ability and willingness to extend disorder is greater.

The United States provided extensive financial and technical support to the Colombian government. The full spectrum of U.S. policy options were used. A full alphabet soup of intelligence and law enforcement agencies were engaged. The U.S. military provided training and operated closely – but was not supposed to be engaged in combat. The U.S. did engage in institution-building, helping Colombian courts develop the capacity to manage complex cases. There was even an economic component, in the ultimately established Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. But the reality of the success was due to the election of a highly capable president who was able to rally the nation. Whether the Colombian government could have prevailed without U.S support is an open question. Perhaps it was U.S. assistance that put them over the top. But most of the heavy lifting was done by the Colombians themselves.

In short, when there is a country in a dangerous place, but still with the resources to rally, the U.S. can help and contribute to a success. But if the country can’t rally, there is little the U.S. can do. Despite conspiracy theories, the United States is not the Almighty, but in foreign policy the U.S. and those seeking its aid should adapt and adopt the old adage: the U.S. helps those who help themselves.

At the same time, we need realistic expectation of what is possible and what is necessary. Colombia is a more peaceful and prosperous country. Hopefully, with open civil war ended, it can continue to grow and develop. But rapid transformations do not happen and, specifically in the case of Colombia, drugs will continue to play an outsized role in their economy as long as there is a market for them in the developed world.

Still, a win is a win and should be studied carefully.

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