When the Secretary of Defense lobbies Congress for a bill, you can be sure it has something to do with our national security.

And that’s why Robert Gates has pressed lawmakers to approve the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement–because it’s in the national-security interests of our country.

This was never so obvious as last week, when Colombia appeared to stand on the brink of war with Venezuela, whose autocratic leader, Hugo Chavez, is a passionate anti-American. The confrontation came after Colombian troops crossed the border into Ecuador, in pursuit of violent guerillas. They managed to kill 21 of them, including an important leader.

That’s when Chavez began his saber-rattling. Rather than congratulating Colombia for an operation that will help bring peace to a country that’s been torn by civil war, he mobilized his own military and threatened to retaliate.

The question of why a Venezuelan strongman would care about Colombia’s supposed violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty is a mystery only to those who aren’t familiar with his recurring mischief in the region. Chavez not only despises the United States, but also Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who is probably America’s strongest ally in the entire Spanish-speaking world. In recent days, evidence has surfaced that Chavez has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Colombian rebel group known as FARC.

Thankfully, the situation appears to have resolved itself. South America has avoided a senseless war.

Much of the credit belongs to Uribe, who didn’t feel a need to up the ante by dispatching Colombian soldiers to the border with Venezuela. He ignored the bluster of Chavez and let diplomacy run its course. Tensions now have lessened.

Yet his pursuit of FARC continues, and the United States has an interest in its success. That’s because although FARC started out as a Marxist rebel movement during the Cold War, it has morphed into a criminal syndicate that exports cocaine and other drugs to our shores. In recent years, the United States has spent more than $600 million annually to fight this scourge, through military assistance and foreign-aid packages.

Colombia’s Uribe appreciates these handouts, but he knows the economic future of his country depends upon something else entirely–trade, not aid. It’s encouraging to see the president of a developing country adopt such a position. Colombia ought to be rewarded for it with a trade agreement that’s in the interests of both of our nations.

At a speech on Wednesday, President Bush indicated his plan to submit the Colombia FTA to Congress after Easter. The deal was concluded two years ago, but it has languished ever since because of protectionist opposition. The Senate probably would approve the measure, but the House is another matter. Late last year, it sanctioned a trade agreement with Peru but so far has resisted this separate deal with Colombia.

Yet there’s hope that the Colombia pact will succeed. “It’s a drug issue as well as a trade issue so it could well pass,” said Democratic congressman James Moran of Virginia.

Some members of Moran’s party have suggested that Colombia isn’t doing enough to rein in violence directed at union leaders. In truth, Uribe is pushing hard to bring peace to his country, most notably by loosening FARC’s Mafia-like grip on certain regions. He has made considerable progress on this front. FARC’s ranks have thinned by about one-third since Uribe took office six years ago. The trade agreement’s economic opportunities would do nothing but help.

As with everything in Washington, some horse-trading may be necessary. Some members of Congress have indicated that they’ll support the trade agreement with Colombia, but only if Trade Adjustment Assistance is expanded to help workers who find themselves displaced by trade.

The devil is in the details, but in concept this sounds like a bargain at least worth considering and very possibly worth striking. I’m not a strong proponent of Trade Adjustment Assistance. As with so many government programs, I’m skeptical about how well it really works. Yet I’m a big fan of exchanging goods and service with foreign countries, especially when they boost our own national security.

It’s time for the president and Congress to get together and make a deal, for the benefit of both Colombia and the United States.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. http://www.truthabouttrade.org