Sticking with an Andean Disaster
who left his job as a Republican Congressman from Arkansas to take
the position, was confirmed as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration
by a 98-1 vote, probably as a courtesy to a congressional old boy.
While he has made a few noises suggesting that he is open to some
minor reforms in the way drug laws are enforced closing the yawning
disparity between the punishment for powder and crack cocaine, being
open to treatment as an alternative to incarceration in some cases
he defends the conventional wisdom on most issues.
He continues peddling the fiction that there is no scientific
evidence for therapeutic uses of marijuana, for example, when the
of Medicine report commissioned by former "drug czar" Barry
McCaffrey plainly says there are numerous well-documented uses and
numerous promising research avenues. But the stubborn clinging to
a policy virtually doomed to fail that is likely to be most costly
to American taxpayers and military people is his defense of (and
probably expansion of) Plan Colombia, which has so far sent $1.3
billion to the sorry government of that South American country.
HOW MANY TIMES?
Nobody even pretends
that the "investment" of US taxpayer dollars in the 50-year civil
war in Colombia is likely to stem the flow of drugs from Colombia
to the United States. The record on this score is dispiriting, to
say the least. The street price of cocaine in the United States
fell 37 percent from 1990 to 1996, a period of intense eradication
and interdiction activity.
Even Asa Hutchinson, in response to a question from Robert
Novak on CNN Saturday, could only say: "I can look you in the eye
and say we need to give this a chance to work."
He went on to "explain": "The intent and justification for
our initiative should not be to stop the flow of drugs coming to
our country. I hope that's a side benefit, but that's not the justification
in my view for the Plan Colombia."
So the new head of the DEA says we ought to spend money in
Colombia even though he doesn't think it will quell the flow of
drugs into American cities? Why should we do it, then? Hutchinson
went on: "We've got to strengthen that democracy and their dependence
to the narco-traffickers of the drug money is what we're trying
to reduce, hopefully as a side benefit to America here."
If you have the faintest idea what that means in the real world,
I wish you would explain it to me.
AN OPPORTUNITY MISSED
The fact that
the new head of the DEA is utterly incapable of offering a coherent
explanation of the benefit to the United States of intervening in
the Colombian civil war highlights one of the most tragic missed
opportunities of the Bush administration to date. The Bush administration
didn't begin this commitment in Colombia, it inherited it from the
The evidence is fairly strong that even the Clinton administration
didn't have a very coherent idea of what it was getting the United
States into with Plan Colombia. The US committed itself to the idea
largely through the extraordinary influence within the administration
of Gen. Barry
McCaffrey, who resigned earlier this year as head of the White
House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the position generally
called "drug czar."
Gen. McCaffrey had such influence largely because the Clinton
administration saw itself as potentially
vulnerable on the issue due to the rumored proclivities of the
commander-in-chief (or at least his brother) and viewed McCaffrey
as a credible straight arrow who really, really wanted to wean the
bad people of this country from illicit drugs. Being a military
man, he saw hope in a straightforward military mission. The Clinton
administration let him have his head on this one, and Plan Colombia
came to be.
CONCEIVED IN FANTASY
So we have a major
US military initiative conceived in desperation and confusion, without
serious planning, with more potential to develop into a Vietnam-style
quagmire than any other current overseas commitment. We had an administration
coming into office whose presidential candidate had said during
the campaign that he was committed to rethinking certain US overseas
commitments, making sure that they really served US interests.
Between the early portions of the campaign and the time Dubya
assumed office, it became more obvious than ever that Colombia's
neighbors, especially Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, were deeply
concerned about the conflict in Colombia spilling over into their
territories. Instead of considering whether those concerns might
be legitimate enough to cause serious rethinking, however, the Bush
administration decided to buy
them off and make the incursion the grandiose Andean Initiative
instead of simply the more modestly doomed Plan Colombia.
PLAYING IN COLOMBIA?
So, is the initiative
at least strengthening democracy in Colombia, as Hutchinson and
other US leaders claim to hope? Perhaps it will, but in a perverse
There's a presidential election in Colombia in May. The front-runner
in the polls now (things could change, of course) is Horacio Serpa,
a former interior minister and the candidate of the opposition Liberal
recently wrote, in Bogota's Cambio news magazine, that
the US-backed program to eradicate coca growing and trafficking
has failed and will continue to fail. "Today there is more cocaine
being produced, more trafficking, more traffickers, and larger areas
under cultivation," Mr. Serpa wrote. "New and alternative formulas
are needed along with a recognition that the [counter-drug] policies
applied to date have been a failure."
The problem, of
course, is that there is so much money in the drug trade and such
a large differential between the price of coca
in the jungle and the price of refined (and cut) cocaine on American
streets that eradication efforts are viewed by narco-traffickers
as simply a cost of doing business. The only people who really get
hurt by the eradication efforts turn out to be small peasant farmers,
the most vulnerable, most innocent and least dangerous people in
the entire equation.
The fact that the street price in the United States has fallen
during eradication efforts doesn't gainsay this factor. Because
of the illegality of certain drugs, the street price of cocaine,
for example, is still 10 to 20 times higher than the pharmaceutical
price. The street price might fall, but that still leaves a huge
margin between the cost of production, transportation and a reasonable
profit margin and what the traffickers can get from addicts and
If the eradication campaign were to be modestly successful
if it were to reduce production enough to raise the street price
a hair or two the profit margins would be even larger and even
more people would be lured into the trade. Even a nodding acquaintance
101 should suggest to a person of reasonable intelligence that
prohibition of a substance a significant number of people want enough
to hit people over the head to acquire money is bound to fail.
MORE HONEST BUT MORE
In implicit acknowledgment
of the fact that even a more concerted and expensive war on coca
cultivation is likely to have little or no impact on the supply
of cocaine in the United States a program in Peru in the 1980s
and early 1990s reduced cultivation in Peru
and transferred most of it to Colombia and coca will grow in any
number of countries, including several African regions some are
starting to push for a straightforward anti-guerrilla intervention
into Colombia's civil war. The Rand
Corporation recently released
a report saying that Plan Colombia won't stop drugs but it's
worthwhile (in a much more expanded and more overtly military form,
of course) to bolster Colombian "democracy" and kick some guerrilla
Asa Hutchinson's unstated acknowledgment of Plan Colombia's
futility as a means of reducing US supplies echoes this sentiment.
One could argue that a straightforward program of aid to the present
Colombia government would at least be more honest than using the
War on Drugs as a cloak for military aid against Colombian guerrillas.
But such a program would also be much more expensive, involve
more US military personnel, and almost certainly lead to more US
casualties beyond the innocent missionaries killed recently for
the crime of flying an airplane in the same skies as some confused
Peruvian military personnel and overeager CIA operatives. And it
is unlikely to lead to success if a decent definition of success
even exists. It might even lead to more resentment and hostility
toward the United States, as if such hostility were not already
evident enough in South America.
Asa Hutchinson seemed to be the sharpest of the House "managers"
during the failed impeachment trial of former President Clinton
in the Senate. He appears to be reasonably intelligent probably
intelligent enough to know he is promoting and defending deeply
flawed policies. It is too bad that he serves an administration
that is mindlessly following in the footsteps of an administration
whose chief executive he tried so hard and, I believe justifiably
if not popularly to drive from office for high crimes and misdemeanors.
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