No sane person believes in the "War on Drugs" anymore. This implies, of course, that our nation's affairs are being directed by madmen, but you knew that anyway. Besides, there are signs that sanity may be seeping slowly through the halls of Congress. Three times the Clinton-Gore administration has tried to push through a billion-plus aid package for the Colombian military and security forces. Twice Congress has rejected the White House request. Reports from the Hill this week suggest that there's more than an even chance the Senate may once again deliver a rebuff to White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

McCaffrey, recently accused by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker of having been involved in war crimes in 1991 at the end of the war in Iraq, has been the most conspicuous advocate for deepening U.S. military involvement in Colombia. In the general's comic-book scenario, the cocaine and opium that undermine America is being cultivated by Colombian peasants under the supervision of communist narco-traffickers, who use their drug profits to buy guns to undermine Colombia's government. Send down money and advisers to the Colombian security forces to wipe out the guerrillas, and the drug war will be won.

No surprises here, since McCaffrey used to head the U.S. Southern Military Command, which has a prodigious, institutional self-interest in the Drug War, since it provides a nice, updated rationale for the old, old business of counterinsurgency.

Objections to the comic-book scenario are that the Colombian military is run by torturers either identical to or closely allied with the drug mafias; that years of "drug interdiction" have never had the slightest impact on shipments of cocaine and heroin to the United States; and that demands for $1.7 billion in military aid would be followed by further demands, then, by requests for a bigger commitment of military forces, and then, all of a sudden, and without having noticed, we'd be right there in the middle of another quagmire.

Those with memories stretching back to the 1980s might note a certain resemblance between the fight over Colombian aid and the fight about aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and to the government of El Salvador. Back then, there were similar protests about sending money to the butchers who murdered Archbishop Romero as he preached in his cathedral in San Salvador, or to the drug-running Contras. The U.S. Congress rebuffed Reagan's request for direct military assistance to the Contras, thus, prompting the illegal supply line supervised by Col. Oliver North. Meanwhile, the Reagan White House issued glowing reports about amazing progress in imparting a profound respect for human rights in the minds of Salvadoran officers best noted for the courage with which they ordered the rape and murder of nuns and unarmed peasants.

The strategies are unchanged. McCaffrey has been strenuously wooing human rights groups. Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Americas, has argued McCaffrey's $1.7-billion aid package was bound to clear Congress, and that the most pragmatic course is to try and install in the aid bill language conditioning release of the money on good behavior by the Colombian military. Already, Human Rights Watch is praising Colombian police and military for improved conduct.

Back in the 1980s, there were people just like Vivanco making the same strenuous claims about newfound respect for human rights in the Salvadoran forces. The claims mounted in lock step with reports of killings by death squads and paramilitaries organized by the military to do the truly dirty work while remaining unaccountable to the human rights groups. Year after year, the U.S. press here mostly went along with the charade that these death squads were somehow beyond the control of Salvadoran military or intelligence.

The fact that Human Rights Watch should lend itself to the effort to push the military aid package through Congress is bad enough. What makes it even worse and even more stupid is the fact that the premise of Vivanco's "pragmatism" is nonsense. The $1.7-billion package is not a done deal. Congress may seriously amend it, and the Senate may yet sink it altogether.

The Senate has already cut the appropriation down to $1 billion, with serious amendments by Sen. Paul Wellstone and by Sen. Patrick Leahy maybe sinking it once again. The friendly reception being given Wellstone's amendment shows which way the wind is blowing on the Hill, as regards the War on Drugs. The Minnesota liberal is proposing to transfer $225 million in the package from its present proclaimed purpose of financing an attack by the Colombian military on guerrilla strongholds in southern Colombia. Instead, the $225 million would go into drug-treatment programs here in the United States. Sen. Arlen Specter is expected to offer a more drastic version of the same idea.

Wellstone is circulating an important study of cocaine markets by the Santa Monica-based Rand think tank. The study finds that provision of treatment to cocaine users is 10 times more cost-effective than drug interdiction schemes, and 23 times more cost-effective than eradication of coca at its source. Yet, one-half of adults here in the United States in immediate need of treatment are not receiving it, and many treatment programs have long waiting lines.

If the McCaffrey package is beaten back yet again, it will be a heartening sign similar to those in the early eighties, when Congress tried to kill aid to the Contras: that our national affairs are not run exclusively by madmen. We don't need to be fighting a decade-long counterinsurgency war in Colombia. Colombia needs loans and capital investment. It doesn't need McCaffrey's legions.

To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.