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At last, Obama backs Colombia trade pact

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum: Obama urged quick ratification of U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement
  • This represents turnabout for Obama, who opposed it as a candidate, Frum says
  • U.S. training for Colombia armed forces, free-market reform made nation richer, he says
  • Frum: Obama belatedly waking up to U.S. interest in a peaceful, prosperous Colombia

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President Bush in 2001-02, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- Finally. In a speech this week, President Obama urged Congress to ratify the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement "as soon as possible."

He also urged action on stalled trade deals with South Korea and Panama. These words represent an amazing turnabout for President Obama. As a candidate, Obama excoriated all three trade deals, U.S.-Colombia most of all.

Here's candidate Obama in April 2008, opposing the Colombia deal in a speech to the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania, 18 days before the Democratic primary in that unionized state: "The violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements."

You have to understand something about Colombia to appreciate the perversity of candidate Obama's position.

Colombia confronts a vicious guerrilla insurgency. Backed by drug-traffickers and the authoritarian government in next-door Venezuela, the guerrillas spread lawlessness and terror through rural regions of the country.

Since 2002, decisive new leadership has achieved amazing successes against the guerrillas. The country's democratically elected and re-elected president, Alvaro Uribe, has restored peace to much of the country. Reported kidnappings, for example, have tumbled from almost 4,000 in 2000 to under 200 in 2009.

Improved security plus free-market reforms have brought new prosperity to Colombia. The economy expanded by a Chinese-like 8 percent in the last pre-recession year, 2007. Polls suggest an 85 percent approval rate for the war-winning Uribe.

Uribe's term ends in August. Uribe will be succeeded by his democratically elected successor, former Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos.

The United States has contributed important aid to Colombia's renewal. America's "Plan Colombia" provided equipment and training to Colombia's armed forces. No U.S. aid is provided to any unit if there is credible evidence of human rights violations. The U.S. has provided humanitarian assistance to the 300,000 Colombians displaced from their homes by guerrilla violence -- some estimates put it as the fourth largest population of displaced persons on earth.

Plan Colombia gets little attention, but it could plausibly be described as the most complete foreign policy success of the Bush years. A vicious insurgency in this hemisphere is being extinguished without a U.S. combat presence and without a single American casualty.

But it takes more than guns to defeat an insurgency. The U.S. has supported Colombian economic development, too. Since 2000, Colombia has reoriented its economy away from illegal drugs to new agricultural exports. Colombia supplies 70 percent of the cut flowers sold in the United States.

To sustain Colombia's growth -- and to gain improved access to the Colombian market for U.S. exporters -- the Bush agreement signed a free-trade agreement with Colombia in November 2006.

Bad timing. The Democrats regained control of Congress in that month's election. The Colombia agreement fell foul of an obstructionist coalition of trade-union protectionists and old-line lefties who see democratic Colombia as a replay of the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. The Democratic presidential candidates shamelessly pandered to these blocking groups -- and the result has been four years of paralysis.

It's good to see now-President Obama belatedly waking up to America's national interest in a peaceful, prosperous Colombia. The question ahead: How hard will the president work to advance that national interest? Will he push? Or will he just talk?

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.