Bush Would Send Troops to Colombia, Aide Says

Times Staff Writer

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu suggested Sunday that President Bush would be willing to send U.S. combat troops to Colombia to fight that nation’s drug cartels if they are requested by Colombia’s president.

So far, the United States has agreed to ship $65 million in military hardware and send about 100 American trainers and advisers to the drug-plagued Latin American nation. However, Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas has told Administration officials he does not want U.S. combat troops.

Would the Bush Administration be willing to risk sending in American troops if Barco changes his mind, Sununu was asked.

“Well, if that request ever came in, I’m sure the President would recognize that the American public thinks that the drug problem is so tough and so important that there is a great feeling among American citizens that we probably should take even that risk,” Sununu said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“If it is requested, the President will evaluate it and make the decision,” Sununu said.


Face Some Dangers

The White House chief of staff acknowledged that U.S. military personnel and Drug Enforcement Administration agents operating in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia face some danger from the powerful Medellin drug cartel but said that the risk is part of their jobs.

“We ought not, as a superpower, to back away from a problem like this, just because citizens doing their job are put at risk,” Sununu said.

In recent weeks, several White House officials have dropped hints that the United States would be willing to take military action in Colombia if that country’s leaders ask for it.

“President Barco has made it very clear in his conversation with President Bush that the Colombians, with an 80,000-man army, do, in fact, want to address the problem themselves,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley.” “Our people will be there strictly in a technical role to support their activities,” he said.

Cheney also played down the risk faced by American personnel as possible targets of the violent drug cartels.

“I can’t say with absolute certainty that there is no risk to our people in Colombia. We are not sending our folks in combat. They’re not going out, for example, with units of the Colombian military to actually attack the facilities of the cartel,” the defense secretary said. “They are going to be flying air missions into Colombia but not within Colombia itself.”

If, however, U.S. troops are attacked by agents of the drug cartels, the Americans “will be able to defend themselves,” Cheney added.

Meanwhile, looking at the drug problem in the United States, key Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress said Sunday that they favor tough new penalties on casual users of drugs.

“I think the American public is, as I read it, in a sort of punitive mood,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas on the ABC program. “We ought to be revoking driver’s licenses. I think we ought to go after students who get federal benefits. We’ve got to go after people who live in housing projects.”