Asa Hutchinson, 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 Institute 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 Clinton administration.
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 fashion.
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 Party. Serpa 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 other users.
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 with Econ 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 DOOMED
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 butt.
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.