The Bush administration is asking lawmakers to lift restrictions on U.S. military aid to Colombia to help anti-drug efforts.
After the collapse of the peace process in Colombia in February and stepped up rebel attacks, Bush administration officials want to expand military aid to that government to help in its counterinsurgency campaign.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich presented the administration's case to members of the House International Affairs Committee. He made clear the administration would continue to press Colombia to improve its human rights record.
Mr. Reich emphasized the administration would also respect limits on the involvement of U.S. military personnel there.
"Our request for new authorities does not signify a retreat from our concern about human rights nor an open-ended U.S. commitment in Colombia," he said. "Our proposal expressly recognizes that we intend to use the new authorities consistent with the human rights conditions relevant to our assistance to Colombia's armed forces and the 400-person cap on U.S. military personnel ."
During the past two years, Congress has approved nearly $2 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia, but only for use in anti-drug efforts.
The Bush administration is asking for $439 million for Colombia in next year's budget to assist that country's military, police, democracy, and human rights programs. It is also seeking $98 million to train and equip Colombian military units protecting a key oil pipeline from rebel attack.
Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, supports the administration's request. Mr. Hyde referred to Colombia rebels as 'terrorists,' a term first used by Colombia President Andres Pastrana to describe members of the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, after peace talks collapsed.
"The dangerous nexus of the drug underworld and terrorism is a grave threat to our national security," said Mr. Hyde . "There are few places in the world where this threat is more pressing than in Colombia."
But Mr. Hyde's fellow Republican, Ron Paul of Texas, does not believe U.S. aid to Colombia has yet made a difference, and he is reluctant to support more. "I do not see the moral justification, I do not see the Constitutional justification for this," he said. "This notion that we bunch this up in words of terrorism when we are dealing with civil factions and civil war I think is a real careless definition of what terrorism is all about."
Congressman Paul, like several lawmakers, is concerned that deeper U.S. military involvement in Colombia could lead to a Vietnam War-like quagmire.