With the announcement this week by President Clinton that he will propose a two-year $1.3 billion emergency anti-narcotics aid package to Colombia, the drug war and the counter-insurgency war waged as part of a 40-year civil war in Colombia have been ratcheted to a new level of violence and risk. If the most likely outcome plenty of spending and little in the way of results occurs, the pressure for direct U.S. military involvement in a war it understands hardly at all is likely to increase.
Will we have to wait for body bags to start coming home before the American people let their leaders know they have had enough of expensive and inconclusive (and often outright harmful to the country we’re purportedly trying to help) involvement in the internal affairs of other countries? If the authorities are shrewd enough to prevent too many American deaths will we accept it as simply another way they use the young men and women in our overstretched military perhaps accepting that it doesn’t do any good but viewing it as something akin to "live" training just to keep the troops sharp?
REPUBLICANS EVEN MORE HAWKISH
Congressional Republicans have been no help on the Colombian issue quite the contrary. The most prominent reaction of Republicans, at least those quoted in news stories, has been that it’s too little too late. Ohio Republicans Sen. Mike DeWine had co-sponsored a bill that would have cost taxpayers $1.6 billion over three years. (Clinton’s proposal, given the $300 million already in this year’s budget for Colombia, which already is the third-highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid behind Israel and Egypt, will spend $1.6 billion over only two years.) Florida Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, one of the most enthusiastic of congressional drug warriors, applauded the proposal, while claiming much of it had been cribbed from legislation he proposed, the "1998 Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act."
Just consider the title of that act for a moment. It tells a great deal about the pretensions and the fundamental dishonesty of the American political system as it exists today. No person with even a modicum of understanding about the drug trade (and I’ll be intellectually generous and include Mr. McCollum in that category) imagines in his wildest dreams that drugs (even the illicit kind) can be eliminated from the Western Hemisphere. Since the 1980s (during which coca production in South America increased tenfold) at least, every increase in drug-war spending and violence on the part of authorities has led to more drug production and trafficking. Only the most gauzy-minded utopian could imagine that a mere act of Congress is likely even to reduce, let alone "eliminate" illicit drugs from the hemisphere.
Yet there is that bill title perhaps a sign of the Clintonian times, during which the president has time and again equated talking about lofty goals with actually achieving them, demanding and receiving accolades merely for identifying problems and promising to spend more of our money on them. To be fair to Clinton, however, promising the moon while knowing that the promise is a lie was endemic to politics long before he emerged from the Arkansas swamps. It’s just that he generally with the connivance (or at least compliance) of the courtier press and the permanent political establishment has taken the practice to new heights (or depths).
DOOMED TO FAILURE
The dishonesty through overpromising of the drug warriors is compounded by the fact that their efforts will almost certainly make the related problems of drug trafficking, criminal activity, violence and disruption of civil society worse, not better. The reasons aren’t that difficult to grasp.
The most fundamental fact, of course, is that it is the policy of domestic prohibitionism that is responsible for most of the violence and terror associated with the drug trade. Prohibitionist policies have never been able to eliminate illicit drugs; their major purpose is to make proponents feel good and to exercise their desire to see people who make bad choices further punished. But they disrupt the marketplace enough to raise the cost of drugs to consumers substantially most authorities believe drugs like cocaine and heroin would cost about a tenth as much to users as they do under prohibitionism.
Since the price without prohibition would reflect a decent profit, a price ten times the "normal" price creates a lot of extra profit call it the prohibition premium beyond the costs of production, shipping and security. In Colombia, some of it goes both to left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. Much of it is funneled to corrupt officials. It can pay for a lot of military equipment, and for raids to capture equipment furnished by the U.S. to the authorities.
An intensification or crackdown that fails actually to eliminate drug trafficking as none in history has yet achieved either increases the prohibition premium or shifts it to other, more competent or lucky criminals. A crackdown increases the comparative advantage of those traffickers who are most adept at the black arts of violence, concealment, bribery and adaptation to difficult circumstances, shaking out some of the relative amateurs. Thus it increases the influence and wealth of some of the most unscrupulous and dangerous elements in any society, contributing to horrendous economic and social problems. It also, despite the best intentions of the warriors, almost always poisons U.S. relations with those societies. (See a piece a few years ago by Cato scholar Ted Carpenter for more unfortunate side effects of Latin American drug wars.)
IS DRUG PEACE A POSSIBILITY?
If the United States really wanted to help Colombia, then, the single most constructive step it could take would be to end domestic prohibitionism, liberating billions for government and private treatment programs and eliminating the most alluring high-price market in the world. I’m hardly as dewy-eyed a utopian as drug warriors are when they’re naming their bills, however. I don’t expect that to happen. At least not very soon, although public opinion on the issue could shift dramatically before the politicians, pundits and pollsters noticed, as has happened on the medical marijuana front.
If ending domestic prohibition is unlikely for the near term, however, might it not be possible to adopt a quasi-Hippocratic policy of “do no harm”? Intensifying the drug war in Colombia is almost certain to do harm. Therefore, it should not be intensified. Even better would be to rethink the international aspects of the drug war and to cut them back. Both crop elimination and interdiction are terribly expensive, terribly disruptive to the law-abiding citizens and the civil liberties of the country within which they are practiced, and have never worked.
Might it be possible to concentrate on the domestic side of prohibition, understanding that ending the supply abroad is a fruitless (and imperialistic) task and making renewed efforts at reducing demand? I don’t think such efforts are likely to be especially effective they seem to work better against legal substances like tobacco or excess alcohol consumption than against illicit substances but at least they wouldn’t poison relationships with other countries or put American military personnel at risk in dangerous environments overseas.
There are other problems with President Clinton’s new effort to use our money to buy himself a legacy as a drug warrior. All concerned are quick to reassure skeptics that the new aid won’t put more Americans directly in harm’s way. "We have established a red line we will not cross no U.S. personnel will ever take part in the conduct of a counter-drug operation," a "senior Defense Department official" (anonymous, of course) told the New York Times.
But red lines always get blurred in practice. And if adhering to the policy is generally perceived as having little or no effect the temptation will be to change it in the direction of a more aggressive policy. Even without an overt change in policy, there are dangers in using Colombia as a testing ground and training ground for U.S. troops. Such operations often operate with little or no oversight from Congress or even from the Defense Department, giving commanders on the ground, in effect, a certain license to improvise important aspects of American foreign policy as they go.
A few members of Congress have expressed some reservations. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont cautioned that "what we are seeing is a dramatic escalation of a counter-insurgency policy in the name of counter-drug policy. In the past, Republican Rep. Tom Campbell of California, who is running for the Senate seat occupied by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has expressed doubts about certain aspects of the drug war as well as economic boycotts and foreign adventurism. He should be asked, as his campaign continues, what he thinks of this Colombia proposal and what alternative he would propose.