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High-handed drug warShips to Colombia

It was none too soon that the Bush administration reversed its plan to send ships to Colombian waters. Officially, the ships were going only to monitor drug traffic in the area. Nevertheless, Bush erred in authorizing the mission, and it's regrettable that it took a national furor to stop it.After inter-American relations had been strained by the U.S. intervention in Panama, U.S. leaders should have been more sensitive to Latin fears of aggression. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft tried early this week to keep the ``Panama angst' low-key. In reassuring Latin Americans, he insisted that Panama is unique: Military intervention wouldn't necessarily be part of U.S. policy. But when the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy was churning through Caribbean waters toward the Colombian shore, his advice was less than comforting.

No matter how well-justified the December invasion was to many Americans, it left much of Latin America with a shocked distrust of the U.S. government. Probably the most skittish were the Nicaraguans, whose reaction to the raid on its ambassador's residence was rightfully indignant.

In light of the law-enforcement tilt of the U.S. drug war, Colombia was especially concerned about what was to come. The Colombian president never agreed to the U.S. action or agreed to be part of a joint operation, and his defense minister's reaction was an angry denunciation of the plan.

The Pentagon has denied that the plan would include any kind of blockade. Defense spokesmen have maintained that the group would be involved in watching air traffic as part of a complex intelligence and electronic drug surveillance system; an Andean radar system would complete the system. The whole proposal was complicated and, in the words of a Pentagon official, would ``not be an overnight process.'

Unfortunately, the administration didn't start at the beginning. To spring an operation of this magnitude on Latin Americans on the heels of the Panamanian intervention violated their sense of sovereignty. Such an action should have been taken only with the cooperation and consent of the Colombian government. Without that, it was a powerful danger sign to other Latin nations.

Why wasn't this operation suspended until after the four-nation ``drug summit' planned for February in Cartagena? The administration has said a discussion of U.S. military and economic aid will be on the agenda. Was President Bush planning to have his offshore operation in place before the four nations had a chance to reject the plan?

Even more grating, the White House says the plan was on hold because of ``premature press leaks.' If that is the reason for scuttling the battle group, we have to wonder what other quasi-military plans are already in place without the knowledge of either Americans or other governments.

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