The emerging consensus, even among the political establishment, is that the war on drugs is a costly failure. Drug production is surging in Latin America—as are the body counts—opium is a staple crop in Afghanistan despite the presence of tens of thousands of occupying troops, and anti-drug policies that have helped put hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders behind bars have had no discernible impact on usage.
But for much of the rightwing establishment, drug prohibition is just like any other war: deserving of uncritical support even in the face of defeat.
Not so long ago the only folks try to link the war on terror and the war on drugs were antiwar critics and crusading reformers attempting to highlight the futility of both wars. Now the linkage is a staple of the neoconservative right's stated rationale for maintaining a global U.S. military presence in a quixotic effort for perfect security.
The Emerging Elite Consensus
Many people trace the advent of the modern war on drugs to President Richard Nixon, who in a 1971 special message to Congress formally declared a war against illicit narcotics, stating his intention to launch a “full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” And not just by locking up users, he said, but by striking at the “supply” side of the problem: the production “and trafficking in these drugs beyond our borders.”
Forty years and more than a trillion dollars later, the U.S. government's war on drugs—which from South America to Central Asia has been more than mere metaphor—is widely considered by both policy experts and former presidents alike to be a dismal failure. Despite the U.S. spending upwards of $15 billion a year on maintaining drug prohibition, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana are as easy to obtain as ever, often at a cheaper price and in a more potent form than four decades ago. The United States imprisons 2.3 million of its citizens, the largest population of incarcerated persons in world history, with more than half of those sent to federal prison in 2009 sentenced for non-violent drug offenses, and yet nearly 1 in 10 Americans report having used an illegal drug in the last month.
“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” declares a new report from the Global Commission on Drugs, an organization that includes establishment luminaries like former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker. “Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers, and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.”
Former President Jimmy Carter has urged U.S. policymakers to embrace the report which, while falling short of a call for outright legalization, recommends ending the “criminalization, marginalization, and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.” Others, however, want to go further—and not just liberals funded by George Soros.
“We have to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of producers—so there are farmers that produce marijuana and manufacturers that process it and distributors that distribute it and shops that sell it,” says former Mexican President Vicente Fox. More than 35,000 Mexican citizens have been killed since Fox's successor, fellow conservative Felipe Calderon, took office and deployed the military to combat his nation's powerful drug cartels, including more than 15,270 last year alone.
But while the emerging consensus accepted even among conservative politicians like Fox—the retired ones, at least—is that the drug war has failed, rightist pundits and politicos in the United States have been ratcheting up rhetoric advocating increased militarization in support of prohibition.
“The violence that Mexico’s antidrug offensive unleashed is tangible evidence that President Felipe Calderon ended the unwritten policy of past Mexican political leaders
who kept the peace with 'narcos' by turning a blind eye to their criminal activities,” writes the American Enterprise Institute's Roger Noriega in a policy guide for the Republican-led House of Representatives. A former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during the Bush administration, Noriega—echoing earlier conservative claims that high body counts were a sign of success in Iraq and Afghanistan—says the violence tearing Mexico apart is a bloody but unavoidable result of Calderon's decision “to apply the rule of law.”
Praising Calderon for setting aside “Mexico’s hypersensitivity about sovereignty to welcome historic levels of U.S. support and collaboration,” Noriega urges a “renewed bipartisan commitment” to the drug war in Mexico and Calderon's “courageous campaign” against the cartels. Noriega urges lawmakers to step up support for the Mérida Initiative, the $1.6 billion Bush-era program—continued under President Obama—that has provided the Mexican armed forces, oft criticized for their poor human rights record, military training and equipment, including helicopters and other surveillance aircraft. It is especially important that Congress reward the courageous Calderon with more funds for the war on drugs, writes Noriega, as there are “disturbing signs that, as in Colombia, many Mexicans prefer appeasement rather than confronting the cartels.”
The White House is requesting nearly $300 million for the Bush-era initiative in 2012, a ten percent increase over the prior year. But Noriega complains the Obama administration has been slow to spend money on the program once appropriated; a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found less than 10 percent of funds for the initiative had been expended. He also argues Obama's proposed $500 million successor to the Mérida Initiative is too little, “not commensurate with the challenge of preventing these Central American states from becoming ungovernable territories where criminals operate with impunity.”
Republicans in Congress are saying the same thing. Florida Republican Connie Mack, chairman of the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, criticized the Obama administration at a hearing this spring for failing to dole out all of the funds appropriated for the Mérida Initiative, saying that, even with the threat of a “failed state” looming across the border, the program “has suffered extensive delays throughout the entire first phase.”
The New Domino Theory
In something of a drug war domino theory, Mack argued the United States should step up its anti-drug aid to Mexico and other Latin American countries lest nations like China—and the favorite neoconservative menace, Iran—step in to fill the perceived power vacuum. “If the United States isn't going to be a leader in the region,” Mack said, “there are many nations who are vying for such a leadership role [sic].”
Ray Walster, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, expressed similar views in testimony before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. Congress needs to put aside “contentious and unproductive debates” about the wisdom of punitive drug laws and whether the war on drugs itself isn't in fact “the root of problem.” Instead, Walster testified that lawmakers and the Obama administration should step up their support for anti-drug efforts, including by developing “a comprehensive strategy for Central America”—one that “must include effective military-to-military support that meshes all elements of national defense and security.”
It is a two-way street, though, according to Halser. For their part, Central American nations should adopt more permissive, U.S.-style policies for law enforcement, such as “moderniz[ing] laws regarding wiretaps and electronic surveillance to make them admissible as evidence and also the updating of asset forfeiture laws,” which allows police to seize property they suspect was used in a drug crime.
Of course, not everyone on the right is in favor of the drug war status quo. The libertarian Cato Institute has long railed against prohibition as an infringement on the individual right to choose. And William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, famously declared the war on drugs in a 1996 editorial “the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre.”
There are even a few Republican voices—lonely ones—in favor of marijuana legalization in Congress, such as Reps. Ron Paul (TX) and Dana Rohrabacher (CA). But the vast majority of Congress—Republican and Democrat—as well as the bulk of the conservative establishment are stalwart supporters of the drug war. And when it comes to those in leadership positions, the war on drugs, like the war on terror, enjoys universal support, with some lawmakers arguing the two are one in the same.
Hezbollah in Latin America
In recent years, neoconservative politicians and pundits have increasingly alleged that Islamic terrorists and groups such as Hezbollah have infiltrated Latin America, the tri-border region between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina in particular, and are profiting from its rich drug trade. And though there is little in the way of hard evidence, they say the infiltration has been aided by leftist insurgents in Colombia—with a wink and a nod from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
“Groups like the FARC are finding new ways to sell drugs in Europe by means of al-Qaeda in Africa,” alleged House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a statement last year. “And al-Qaeda is more than willing to use the drug trade to help finance its extremist agenda,” she said. A fierce critic of Chávez, Ros-Lehtinen alleged the Venezuelan president was in part to blame, saying he was allowing his country “to serve as a massive airport for the use of traffickers.”
That claim has since been echoed by outlets like the Christian Broadcasting News (CBN) and the Washington Post. In March, the Post published an Op-Ed by AEI's Noriega alleging, “According to information from within the Venezuelan regime”—from anonymous officials who only talk with rightwing ideologues—Chavez has recently gone so far as to convene a secret meeting of “terror operatives and drug traffickers,” proving himself a direct threat to the United States that need be countered with military aid to allies in the region.
Jaime Daremblum, ambassador to Costa Rica under George W. Bush now at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, claims that the Iranian government has deep ties to the Latin American drug trade, aided by its increasingly friendly relations with countries like Nicaragua and, of course, Venezuela. Indeed, the Islamic Republic's relations with the region are “intimately related to narcoterrorism, both in its own practice and in the groups and activities it sponsors,” he charges, labeling Iran's relations with Central and South American countries a direct threat to U.S. security.
Daremblum also refers to the “relationship between Chavez and FARC” as a matter of fact, one that “helps explain Venezuela's growing importance to international cocaine trafficking. In a piece for conservative website Pajamas Media, the Hudson Institute senior fellow cites documents allegedly recovered by Colombian military forces after a controversial March 2008 cross-border raid in Ecuador that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes as providing evidence of an explicit link between the group and the Venezuelan government.
The documents, allegedly stored on laptops owned by Reyes, were cited by the Colombian government as evidence of their neighbor's support for the FARC. Neoconservative pundits who have long disdained Chavez’s grip on power in oil-rich Venezuela typically cite the purported records as if their authenticity is uncontroversial.
However, in a rebuttal to suggestions they had verified the authenticity of the records, officials at INTERPOL issued a press release back in 2008 saying that it had not “in any way, shape or form” said the files “are true and accurate,” noting that the international law enforcement organization objected to those who suggested it had validated “the source and accuracy of any particular document.”
That hasn't stopped the documents from being cited by those on the right, who have only stepped up claims of ties between drug traffickers and Chávez—and in some tellings of it, Iran too. Those alleged ties explain the recent trumpeting by the U.S. right of the case of Walid Makled as a cause célèbre. A Venezuelan businessman arrested in Colombia on U.S. drug charges, Makled has claimed to have evidence of ties between his drug smuggling operation and top Venezuelan generals and politicians.
“Walid Makled is a symbol of the narco-corruption that has infected Venezuela under Hugo Chávez,” Daremblum writes. “He is also a symbol of declining U.S. influence in Latin America.”
No Longer “Our Backyard”
Daremblum may indeed be right about one thing—U.S. influence in Latin America appears to be on the wane. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the U.S. government's strongest ally in South America, chose to extradite Makled to Venezuela, where he is also wanted on drug charges. The move was the latest toward a full reconciliation between the two once-feuding nations, with Venezuela earlier this year arresting and extraditing an alleged top member of the FARC, suggesting its ties to the group are perhaps less than claimed. Santos has even praised his Venezuelan counterpart in the media, saying Chávez “did not hesitate” to arrest and extradite the suspected FARC member—who supporters argue is merely a left-wing journalist and activist—when asked.
While it might not be an issue raised at Tea Party rallies, many on the establishment right argue stepping up U.S. support for the war on drugs abroad is vital to the nation's security—a proxy war against not just the scourge of drugs, but against troublesome leaders and terrorists.
As their full-fledged backing of both the war on terror and war on drugs shows, the default foreign policy approach of many U.S. hawks remains a never-ending struggle—in the face of all contrary evidence—for “security.”
Charles Davis is an independent journalist based in Nicaragua and a contributor to Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/).