Last week the Clinton administration's national drug coordinator, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, called the latest upsurge in guerrilla violence in Colombia an "emergency" and a "regional crisis." The president said events in Colombia -- where 90 percent of the cocaine and nearly half the heroin that reaches the United States originate -- affect U.S. "national security." And prominent members of Congress warned Colombia could become a "narco-guerrilla state."

But neither the administration nor Congress acts as if it believes those statements are true.

After Colombian President Andres Pastrana's election in July 1998, President Clinton twice welcomed him to the White House, the second time for a state visit, in a laudable effort to boost nascent peace negotiations. But since then, neither the president nor the secretary of state, who are daily and deeply involved in supporting peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, has paid sustained attention to Colombia, which, with 40 million citizens, is the second most populous nation in South America.

Congress tripled U.S. military assistance to Colombia this year, making it the third-largest recipient of U.S. security assistance in the world, after Israel and Egypt. At the same time, House Republicans have vilified the State Department's contacts with the largest Colombian guerrilla group, the FARC, as "soft on narco-trafficking," although those contacts were requested by President Pastrana as part of his negotiating strategy. Meanwhile, the Senate has failed to act on the administration's nomination of a new assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

Unfortunately, the peace process in Colombia, which began with high hopes and broad popular support, is faltering. The guerrillas are bringing terror to Colombia's cities. Paramilitary forces, financed by drug traffickers and landowners, are escalating violence against civilian guerrilla "supporters" and Colombia's embattled human rights community. Colombia's neighbors -- Peru, Venezuela and Panama -- voice fears the war is spilling over their borders. And Colombia's economy, historically the best managed in Latin America, is suffering through a deep recession, its first in 40 years.

The blame rests with the guerrillas, who have taken advantage of territory ceded to them as a gesture of goodwill by Pastrana to spread the war to the cities while stalling on negotiations. Pastrana, who has shown great courage in pursuing peace, also has failed to involve Colombian civil society in the negotiations, field an experienced negotiating team or reach out effectively to the international community. But the United States and the democratic community also have failed to give Colombia the support it needs and deserves.

Here is what the U.S. executive and Congress should do:

Strengthen Colombia's economy: President Pastrana cannot wage either peace -- or, if necessary, war -- effectively if investor dollars flee because of fears about the future. Colombia's economic team has taken tough reform measures, but the nation needs a vote of confidence. The administration should signal the International Monetary Fund, which is considering a $3 billion support package for Colombia, as well as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and friendly donor nations to provide maximum support for the country. Congress should extend the Andean Trade Preference Initiative, set to expire in 2001, which provides duty-free access to Colombian products.

Forge a bipartisan strategy: Rather then fight over military aid vs. support for negotiations, the administration and Congress together should send one clear message to all the actors in Colombia: The United States will aggressively support a negotiated settlement to the conflict and marshal resources to fund a final agreement. But if the guerrillas refuse to negotiate in good faith, the United States will support a long-term effort to modernize the Colombian armed forces, conditioned on continued progress in rooting out human rights abusers from the military and a concrete program to disband the paramilitaries.

Mobilize international support: As we learned in El Salvador, Colombia needs the active involvement and support of democratic nations in Latin America and Europe and multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to negotiate a peace settlement, field the peacekeeping forces needed to enforce it, and fund the government reforms and economic alternatives to drug cultivation, which will be part of any final settlement. Colombia must ask for such assistance, but such an international coalition can be assembled only with the leadership of the United States.

Talk to the guerrillas: Neither the guerrillas nor government can defeat the other decisively, so ultimately, the war, now 40 years old, with deep social and political roots, must end through negotiations. An executive and congressional bipartisan delegation should tell the guerrillas directly: If their agenda is political, as well as social reform, economic alternatives to drug trafficking and safe space to enter the democratic process, the United States will be supportive. If their agenda is to wage a war of terror on Colombian democracy, financed through drug trafficking and kidnapping, the democratic community will resist.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the United States usually goes wrong in Latin America not when it intervenes too quickly but when it fails to pay attention until problems mushroom into crises, our politics become polarized and all the policy choices are bad. Both the American people and the Colombian people deserve better from our elected leadership.

The writer was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from June 1989 to July 1993.