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In the outpouring of warm and deserving tributes to Brent Scowcroft, who died last week at 95, there is no mention of Colombia. That is no surprise. In his 40-year career of public service, including stints as national security advisor with both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W Bush, General Scowcroft amassed an array of formidable accomplishments, including superb management of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In and out of government, Scowcroft focused most of his attention on issues and countries of greatest strategic importance to the United States, including military matters and of course China, Russia and the Middle East.
But 20 years ago, Scowcroft, then out of government, also turned his attention to South America. Together with Democratic senator Bob Graham, he agreed to co-chair a task force of the Inter-American Dialogue and the Council on Foreign Relations on Colombia. I had the privilege of working closely with Scowcroft and Graham for eight months.
At that time, Colombia was on the brink, wracked by lawlessness, with a weak state besieged by growing violent forces on the left and right. Colombians were fleeing their country in droves. With many in Washington alarmed by the deteriorating situation, a $1.3 billion anti-drug and security assistance package, Plan Colombia, was devised to help avert disaster. Scowcroft agreed to co-chair the task force because he thought Colombia was strategically significant for the United States and he believed the Plan had a real chance of succeeding.
Nonetheless, he was skeptical. He repeatedly asked me if there was any precedent for an effort like Plan Colombia working anywhere else in the world. I confessed that no examples came to mind, but I told him I thought that the Plan, however seriously flawed, was probably the best approach available given current political realities.
Scowcroft’s greatest concern was that Plan Colombia was excessively focused on drugs — as if spraying coca plants in southern Colombia would somehow help improve the country’s worsening security situation. In fact, he said that was backwards thinking. But he knew enough about US politics to realize that, absent the drug component, the whole package would have had little chance of garnering enough support for Congressional passage.
The task force produced two reports. The first was a preliminary report, prior to the June 2000 Senate vote approving Plan Colombia funding. Its chief aim was to help shape Congressional views and explain why a stable Colombia was so critical to US interests. Scowcroft and Graham participated in a launch and wide-ranging discussion on Capitol Hill. The purpose of the final report, “Towards Greater Peace and Security in Colombia,” which came out in October 2000, was to offer a strong rationale for Plan Colombia and build public support. Criticism centered around human rights concerns and a conviction that to assist Colombia it was best to concentrate all efforts on reducing demand for cocaine in the United States.
Working with Scowcroft was stimulating and a sheer joy. He was self-effacing and no-nonsense, yet obviously brilliant and proved to be a remarkably quick study on Colombia, with all its complexities. His feedback on my various drafts were tough and pointed. He pushed to make the report more strategic and sharper conceptually.
He repeatedly returned to what he saw as the heart of the Colombia challenge – to help the state assert its authority over the national territory and strengthen the capacity of security forces to protect Colombians. For him, that was the fundamental issue. Everything else, including the drug issue, was secondary. But he fully understood that a framework of democratic legitimacy and respect for human rights had to accompany the plan.
My sense is that Scowcroft was also drawn to Plan Colombia because of the bipartisan support it enjoyed in Congress. He believed that broad agreement by Republicans and Democrats on a number of key issues made a critical contribution to bringing the Cold War to an end. Although he worked for Republican administrations, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency he served on a special committee on arms control. Barack Obama greatly admired Scowcroft’s cautious and hard-headed approach to foreign policy and often reached out to him for advice on national security questions.
Scowcroft was the consummate realist and recognized the limits of US military power. He worried a great deal that overreach would eventually harm US interests. In an August 2002 column in The Wall Street Journal, Scowcroft admonished the George W. Bush administration about the risks of deciding to topple Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq in 2003. He feared a disaster would ensue. He was right about that.
Robert Gates, one of Scowcroft’s most prominent protégés who served as secretary of defense under two US administrations, just published, Exercise of Power –American failures, successes and a new path forward in the post-Cold War World. He is particularly scathing on Iraq and Afghanistan. Notably, he singles out Colombia as a rare success story (along with HIV Aids in Africa, under George W. Bush), with a chapter entitled, “Colombia: The Plan that Worked (Mostly).”
As Gates notes – and Scowcroft anticipated – Plan Colombia failed to achieve its highest priority objective – to make a serious dent in the drug problem not only in Colombia but on the streets of the United States. But as Gates argues, and as Scowcroft believed, Plan Colombia, for all of its flaws in conception and implementation, contributed to bolstering the government’s capacity to finally turn the tide in weakening a 50 year-old insurgency and prepare the ground for an eventual negotiated peace.
General Scowcroft became a Dialogue member when he concluded his government service. We have always been proud and honored that he included our organization among his myriad affiliations. He was truly one of the giants of the US foreign policy establishment. We admire his wisdom, prowess as a strategist, and humility as a person. Like few others, he understood the importance of building and sustaining US alliances and respectful relations. Throughout the world — and certainly in our hemisphere — that goal is today more urgent than ever. At the Dialogue, we are inspired by Scowcroft’s rich legacy.