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The President and Secretary of State are making “a largely moral case for a retaliatory response” in Syria, New York Times editors asserted recently. And Obama declared Wednesday that “the international community’s credibility is on the line,” since it was “the world” that “set a red line” regarding chemical weapons use. Suppose then that Russia, as a member of said community, attempted to uphold these ethical standards by striking Colombia.
Putin would have a strong justification for doing so. “American intelligence has not disclosed any evidence that Mr. Assad personally ordered the use of sarin,” Peter Baker admitted in the Times, but the case against Colombia’s “aerial eradication” strategy—a euphemism for chemical warfare—is airtight by comparison. Fumigation, ostensibly targeting coca production, has been official government policy for years. The U.S. embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section in Bogotá pays for the glyphosate-based mixture and aircraft used in the herbicide-spraying flights, which generally fail to accomplish their stated aims, but consistently devastate poor farmers.
Several courageous journalists have reported on the herbicide’s health effects, no easy task given U.S. and Colombian officials’ extensive efforts to keep the policy’s details secret. Hugh O’Shaughnessy is one of them. He traveled to the department of Putumayo in June 2001, visiting a small village school, where “Gloria, a teacher, told [him] how early on the mornings of 23 December 2000 and 6 January 2001 planes had time and again swooped low over the playground, flying at the height of a palm tree.” She proceeded to explain that some “230 of the 450 pupils at our school have been ill since then with diarrhea, respiratory illnesses and constantly recurring skin infections.”
Research can be undertaken more freely in Ecuador’s Sucumbíos province, adjacent to Putumayo, and thus also affected by the spraying. Ten Ecuadorean NGOs compiled a report concluding that “it has been possible to note systemic damage in the people, such as respiratory, skin and digestive infections, and nervous complaints.” Clearly this officially-sanctioned fumigation, carried out for decades and resulting in the poisoning and forced displacement of tens of thousands of destitute Colombians, is “an assault on human dignity,” in Obama’s eloquent formulation, warranting what is apparently the only appropriate response: a “military action” that is “limited in duration and scope.”
Russia is well-qualified to carry out just such a strike. It has nothing remotely like the military presence—or history of interventions—the U.S. does in Latin America, which ought to ease fears of ulterior motives driving the attack. And Russia hasn’t invaded and occupied any of Colombia’s neighbors in the past decade, as Washington did across Syria’s border in Iraq; none of Colombia’s neighbors have ties with Russia comparable to Israel’s with the U.S., either. To the contrary: Putin’s cooperation with Venezuela, perhaps the region’s most democratic nation, stands in sharp contrast to Washington’s years of hostility towards Chávez, including efforts to oust him. One could even argue that a Russian strike might have a deterrent effect on the Colombian government, whose brutal policies continue in part because of the impunity afforded top officials. Recall that fumigation intensified more than a decade ago, right after the Washington-conceived Plan Colombia, first drafted in English, was put into effect. Decisive action is long overdue, in this case.
But no one wants a Russian strike on Colombia, for the obvious reason that it would be catastrophic. And more fundamentally, no one is issuing this call because the planned U.S. strike on Syria has nothing to do with a principled ethical stance. It’s an assertion of power—an act even less justified, more cynical, and potentially more disastrous than the imagined nightmare scenario discussed here. We’d do well to bear that in mind in the coming days.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: email@example.com.