Backers of the Clinton administration's Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion aid package loaded with military hardware and personnel, say it is unfair to draw parallels between this U.S involvement in a jungle civil war and America's experience in Southeast Asia.
OK, it's a deal. Bang. Vietnam? Never heard of it.
So let's compare Plan Colombia with a much more recent—ongoing even—experience: the Balkans.
Colombia's neighbors have already worried that increased U.S. involvement in fighting "narco-traffickers" will mean trouble on their side of remote, rugged borders. Pish-posh, the State Department snorts. You have nothing to fear from any spillover.
Yet it was fear of destabilizing Europe that—once the false claims of genocide were exposed—stood as the main justification for NATO's military campaign in Serbia and the quite possibly permanent "nation building" presences in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. No one claimed that the various Balkan ethnic militias would actually invade a neighboring country—just that the ongoing fighting would send refugees to places that really, really didn't want refugees.
Compare that with Colombia, where there have already been reports of cross-border arms shipments. In one case, officers of the Peruvian military have been implicated.
To the extent that U.S–Colombian efforts succeed in turning up the heat on the narcos, the leftist guerillas, or both—we will assume for the moment that it is possible to distinguish between the two groups—that will mean a quick slip across a border to sanctuary. The entire history of warfare tells us that is what happens.
But the Clinton administration insists that the fighting won't spill over, and that even if it does, it's no big deal. That puts the Clinton team in the position of arguing that the poor, fragile democracies of Latin America are better equipped to handle external threats than the rich, robust democracies of Europe. And that gun-toting fighters are less of a threat than suitcase-toting refugees.
In the unlikely event that the architects of Plan Colombia actually believe that, we should all be very afraid. More likely, it is merely garden-variety political malfeasance at work—and simple sadness will suffice.