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Problems with Current U.S. Policy.

The Pentagon's role in policy design is increasing. Military engagement activities have been growing, while State Department and foreign aid budgets have fallen or stagnated. Although civilian officials and Congress still generally play the greater role in U.S. policymaking toward Latin America, they clearly do not have the greater momentum. Well-funded, frequent military engagement programs are outpacing or eclipsing U.S. diplomatic engagement with some countries while eluding effective civilian and congressional oversight. By forging relationships and incubating policy initiatives, these military activities are leaving the nondefense branches of government--including Congress--often struggling to keep up.

An important example is the three new counternarcotics battalions that the United States is creating--at a cost of over a half billion dollars--within the Colombian Army. The battalion idea first emerged publicly at a December 1998 meeting of the region's defense ministers, an engagement activity sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department. Training of the first battalion began in April 1999 using Pentagon counternarcotics funds, a budget category for which Congress did not get detailed reports. The first battalion got weapons and Huey helicopters through drawdowns and "no-cost leases," mechanisms that do not require congressional approval. It was not until the spring of 2000 that the Clinton administration's $1.3 billion aid proposal for Colombia moved the now-active battalion initiative beyond the Pentagon's discretionary funds and into State Department-managed aid programs.

Similar examples of Pentagon initiative abound. Today, the military component of U.S. aid to Colombia in 2000 and 2001--80% of the total--is in an advanced state of implementation, while the economic and social component is barely underway. Most members of Congress would be surprised to know that the Defense Department budget is helping to build barracks in Bolivia and the Navy-Police Riverine Training Center in Peru. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, the U.S. military took the initiative to establish relations with Nicaragua's erstwhile Sandinista Army, with little public notice or debate. The Defense Department negotiated Forward Operating Location agreements to use airbase facilities in Ecuador, El Salvador, and the Netherlands Antilles, only checking in with Congress afterward to seek construction funds for the sites.

Often military activities pull official policies along in their wake, but in some cases it is simply hard to figure out how they relate to U.S. foreign policy goals at all. A quick look at activities in 1999 offers many examples. Why, for instance, did U.S. Special Forces need to train with Argentine commandos in mountain warfare techniques? Why did they train with 310 Belizean soldiers in small unit tactics, with 93 Dominican soldiers in riot control, or with 432 Bolivians and Uruguayans in air infiltration training? Why did the School of the Americas continue to offer a commando course in which students are "subjected to stressful conditions simulating combat"? Why did Southern Command offer Bolivia $569,490 in infrastructure-building, medical, dental, and veterinary services, when civilian U.S. agencies were perfectly capable of doing the same thing?

The stated purpose of the U.S. military's engagement activities is to promote democracy and respect for human rights, to modernize and professionalize security forces, and to strengthen regional security cooperation, often by developing relationships with key officers overseas. These are all understandable goals, but it is not clear how combat and technical training helps Latin America attain them.

The rise of military engagement may in fact be undermining these goals, since U.S. military initiatives frequently encourage Latin American personnel to take on roles that would be illegal in the United States. For instance, U.S. units cannot conduct domestically the types of counterdrug operations for which they train their regional counterparts. Barring extreme circumstances, the U.S. military does not keep public order, though Special Forces frequently teach "Foreign Internal Defense" and similar domestic-control skills overseas. Moreover, U.S. military personnel cannot build roads, bridges, schools, and wells at home, but they do so in Latin America, setting a risky precedent for militaries in fledgling democracies.

The Pentagon's enthusiasm for working with every military in the region often drowns out the warnings of human rights activists. Despite human rights protections in U.S. military aid law, the Pentagon's diverse military activities in Latin America can end up transferring weapons, skills, and abilities that might later be misused by abusive officials or units. Given the minimal tracking of trainees' careers and the feeble end-use monitoring of arms transfers, it is unclear exactly what military assistance is leaving behind. Meanwhile, military-to-military contact programs can have unintended political consequences. Visits, conferences, exchanges, and other activities that the U.S. Southern Command initiates can offer an inadvertent U.S. seal of approval to abusive military bodies, units, or individuals who are invited to participate.

The spread of freewheeling, unsupervised military programs--amid a decline in diplomatic contacts and economic aid--inclines Washington to choose military solutions to problems in Latin America. If a solid foundation for militaristic policy choices already exists, it can eclipse political approaches, such as peace processes or social assistance programs, which would have to begin from scratch with less-familiar civilian leaders. Latin American military leaders' analyses and recommendations often carry disproportionate weight, because of their superior access to U.S. policymakers. The resulting imbalance can lead Washington to neglect many civilian institutions that badly need strengthening in fragile Latin American democracies.

Key Problems

* The U.S. military's activities in Latin America at times outstrip official policy, leading Washington to choose military solutions to the region's largely social problems.

* U.S. military engagement often seems to have little to do with official goals in the region and encourages Latin American militaries to take on roles that would be illegal in the United States.

* Military engagement and training strengthen the region's militaries at the expense of fragile civilian institutions, often with negative human rights consequences.

Adam Isacson <> has directed the Center for International Policy's Latin America Demilitarization Program since 1995. The program seeks to limit U.S. military involvement in the hemisphere and works with organizations in the region seeking to reduce military sizes and roles.
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Author:Isacson, Adam
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:May 30, 2001
Previous Article:Militarizing Latin America Policy.
Next Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.

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