Which war do we fight next?

August 16, 1999|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Decisions, decisions! Where should we go to war next? It looks like Montenegro. Or maybe Colombia.

Montenegro, as you know, is not a country, but rather a member of the Yugoslav Federation -- the same as Serbia. Except that Montenegro, which is now demanding independence, has only 500,000 people. It cannot defend itself against Slobodan Milosevich's Serbia, much less break away as a separate country.

Unless we help. Well, we, or rather NATO, do have troops all around there: 50,000 in Bosnia and 30,000 in Kosovo, which was only a Yugoslav province when we decided to go to war there. And, of course, we have those B-2 bombers in Missouri that know the way to the Balkans.

Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, seems to be leaning toward intervening there. The lead editorial on Wednesday was headlined: "Next, Montenegro? If it breaks from Yugoslavia, America and NATO may well have to come to its aid."

Indeed. We decided we could stabilize the endless and complicated civil wars of the Balkans. That could take a lot of time.

The New York Times seems to be looking toward war in Colombia, the third-largest country in South America. Or, at least, it published a demi-manifesto by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last Tuesday under the headlines: "Colombia's Struggles and How We Can Help. Supporting a troubled nation means more than drug interdiction."

What more, you may ask? What more than the five soldiers who died in an airplane crash there last month? What more than $289 million in security aid, second only to what we send to Israel and Egypt as a Mideast peace package deal?

Civil wars

Secretary Albright describes Colombia as the most troubled country on its continent. That is certainly true. The civil wars there, which have been going on for 35 or 50 years, depending on whom you ask, do not even much involve the elected government at this point in the country's troubled history.

Rebel armies are fighting each other, right-wing paramilitaries linked perhaps to the Colombian army against two forces of left-wing guerrillas, which control huge areas of the country.

Some of the guerrilla strongholds are only 25 miles from the capital city, Bogota. At least a million people are displaced and living off the land, sometimes in daily fear of their lives.

The short way of saying the above is that neither the American nor the Colombian government is sure that elected officials control the army.

All sides (and the government, too) are connected and financed in some degree by the narcotics trade to the "North Star," which is what Colombians called the United States in earlier times. That was after President Theodore Roosevelt sort of took away part of their country, called it Panama, and built a canal across it from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

That narcotics trade, according to U.S. numbers, accounts for more than 80 percent of the cocaine and much of the heroin so self-destructively prized by Americans. We have 200 American military trainers in-country already because of drugs. The five soldiers killed were trainers.

Our drug czar Barry McCaffrey wants to send $600 million more as part of a global increase of $1 billion in new drug aid.

Unclear proposal

It is not clear, at least to me, exactly what Secretary Albright is proposing. She ends her tract by saying: "Colombia's people are engaged in a vital test of democracy, a test they must pass themselves. But they should know that we understand the many dimensions and long-term nature of the problems they face, and that we will do all we can to help them."

In the old days, words like that meant send in the Marines. Recently, they have meant send in Cruise missiles. But something is going to happen there, in Colombia -- or in Montenegro. What we do probably depends on which one gets to us first on television with horrific pictures of people who look like us -- but are not.

Richard Reeves writes a syndicated column.

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