The Colombia Scenario

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Robert Kaplan does an interesting Current on Colombia noting that “Colombia is what Iraq should eventually look like, in our best dreams. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has fought — and is winning — a counterinsurgency war even as he has liberalized the economy, strengthened institutions, and improved human rights. Nuri al Maliki and Hamid Karzai could learn from him.” I think the first two sentences here are persuasive, the final one less so. I’d say rather that we could learn a lot about Iraq based on how fitful and difficult progress has been in Colombia.

Suppose Spanish-language skill were as widespread in the United States as Arabic-language skill is. And suppose there were a large religious difference between Americans and Colombians. And suppose that Colombia contained a large, linguistically and ethnically distinct minority group that had been waging an armed struggle on-and-off for decades for its independence. Map a sectarian division among Colombia’s Spanish-speaking Catholics onto the situation. And have it be that U.S. policy is widely blamed for first 12 years of severe economic deprivation and then for creating the current situation of chaos.

Well, that’d be a lot tougher. And yet for all the advantages we have in Colombia (to say nothing of the fact that the relatively small burden on the U.S. economy and military makes it much more reasonable to consider a long-term engagement) the situation has hardly been unproblematic over the years and it’s not truly clear that it’ll work. Rather than giving us confidence, in short, that we can make Iraq succeed, I think a consideration of Colombia should give us pause.