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Drug War inflames Ant-U.S, Anti-democratic forces PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ted Galen Carpenter   
Friday, 30 September 2011 15:51

Ted galen Carpenter & R. Channing House

Ted Galen Carpenter is the director of foreign policy studies and R. Channing Rouse is an associate defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute, 224 Sec-ond St., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003. This is an excerpt from Cato Policy Analysis No. 128, Perilous Panacea: the Military in the Drug War.

Proposals for involving the military in drug eradication efforts in Latin America are dangerously shortsighted. To be sure, the administration insists that there are no current plans to use American forces in a combat capacity. But both President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney have point-edly refused to rule out an eventual combat role. Their refusal understanda-bly disturbs Americans who recall that the massive Vietnam intervention also began with the shipment of hardware and the dispatch of small numbers of military advisers. Nor can they take much comfort from the ambiguous phrasing of Bush's pledge of military aid to the Andean countries on Sept. 5:

Our message to the drug cartels is this: The rules have changed. We will help any government that wants our help. When requested, we will for the first time make available the appropriate resources of America's military forces.

In particular, one might ask what is meant by "appropriate resources"?

Administration leaders insist that the United States will provide assis-tance only on the request of the host governments, implying that this is another limitation on America's mili-tary involvement. But those who are familiar with Washington's ability throughout the cold war to pressure small client nations into "requesting" assistance will be skeptical about the effectiveness of that caveat. The presi-dent and Congress have already dis-played a willingness to use coercive measures to "encourage" nations that produce or export drugs to accede to U.S. demands. One of the weapons that appeal to U.S. officials is the threat of "decertification." The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act made U.S. economic and military assistance, the granting or continuation of most-favored-nation trade status, and U.S. support for World Bank loans contingent on a government's "certified cooperation" with the United States in drug eradica-tion efforts. The president's September 1989 National Drug Control Strategy report affirmed that "in bilateral rela-tionships with illegal drug producing and transit countries," the United States "must emphasize the require-ment for cooperation with our anti-drug efforts.... [Wle must be prepared to decertify countries that willfully permit drug traffickers to continue operations within their national terri-tory." With the United States possess-ing such vital leverage, many Latin American nations would be hard pressed to decline U.S. "offers" of mili-tary assistance in the war on drugs.

Latin American 'requests'

Indeed, one must question whether, in any case, requests for military aid from drug-producing countries would be genuine or merely made in acquies-cence to a policy demanded by Wash-ington. For example, more than two months before the Colombian govern-ment requested emergency military aid, the Bush administration had signaled its intent to provide increased levels of military as well as economic aid to the Andean countries to combat drug traf-ficking. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Colombian presi-dential candidate Luis Carlos Galan,

Attorney General Richard Thornburgh emphasized that the United States would seriously consider sending troops if the Colombian government requested it to do so. Two weeks later, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu stated that the administration would probably approve direct U.S. military involvement if Bogota reversed its position and requested such assistance.

Even the most obtuse officials in Bogota could scarcely have failed to pick up such repeated hints. The Bush administration's none-too-subtle pres-sure placed the government of Virgilio Barco in a difficult position. Barco re-sponded by asking the United States for military equipment and, as an apparent concession to Washington, a limited number of "advisers" while placating nationalist feelings in his own country by reiterating that there was no need for U.S. combat forces. By pressuring the Andean governments to permit even a limited U.S. military role in the campaign against drug traffick-ing, the Bush administration is ignor-ing the long-standing antipathy of Latin American populations to a U.S. troop presence in their countries. Such a visible display of power is likely to reawaken memories of "Yankee impe-rialism" — memories that are not slum-bering too soundly to begin with, par-ticularly after the Panama invasion.

Foreign policy implications

Indeed, Latin American populations frequently resent even non-mili-tary U.S. pressure. The extradition issue is proving to be a potent source of resentment. Colombians, in particu-lar, have consistently opposed Washington's efforts to extradite ac-cused drug traffickers as an infringe-ment on their nation's sovereignty. President Barco's decision to cooperate with the Bush administration in extra-diting suspected traffickers to the United States after the Galan assassi-nation remains unpopular with large segments of the Colombian population. Disapproval of Barco's cooperation is not, as insensitive U.S. officials some-times allege, confined to those elements involved in the drug trade. The Wash-ington Post reported on Aug, 23, 1989, that "extradition has been highly un-popular among Colombians as an of-fense to nationalist sentiments. The sight of fellow citizens being handcuffed and manacled in the United States remains a deeply unsettling image for many Colombians."

If Colombians and other Latin Americans resent heavy-handed U.S. demands for extradition, one can read-ily imagine their reaction to U.S. troops fighting the war on drugs in their coun-tries. Concern about those issues is not merely theoretical. The issues of extra-dition and U.S. military coercion in Latin America are beginning to dove-tail , as evidenced by the Justice Department's November 1989 ruling authorizing the military to apprehend accused drug traffickers in foreign countries without the consent of the host governments.

Aside from the dubious legality of such a policy under international law, it is politically insensitive and certain to damage U.S. relations with other nations — especially in Latin America. It could also provoke extremely dan-gerous incidents. Foreign governments are likely to regard uninvited U.S. military incursions as distinctly un-friendly acts and might even use force to repel them. Even normally compli-ant regimes might find it impossible to resist nationalist pressures to prevent such a blatant attempt to treat their countries like components of a U.S. empire. The hostile reaction of Latin American governments to the invasion of Panama in December 1989 under-scores their sensitivity to U.S. military intervention. Peru's decision to with-draw from the sched-uled Feb. 15, 1990, "drug summit" unless all American troops were withdrawn from Panama by that date and to temporarily suspend all coopera-tion with U.S.-spon-sored anti-drug efforts within its territory was especially reveal-ing. It indicated that Lima recognized that the Panama operation was at least partially motivated by the war on drugs. More signifi-cant, it reflected Peruvian uneasiness about the direction Washington's drug war is taking.

Washington should not be surprised that many Latin Americans are not only reluctant to enlist in the war on drugs but openly averse to any hint of U.S. military pressure. Evidence of that attitude emerged even before the brou-haha that occurred in the aftermath of the Panamanian invasion. The response of the residents of one small Bolivian town to an American-sponsored drug raid as part of Operation Blast Furnace in 1986 illustrated the explosive possi-bilities for anti-Americanism through-out the hemisphere. U.S. and Bolivian anti-drug units that were engaged in a search for traffickers in Santa Ana were forced to flee an angry mob of 3,000 (of the 5,000) townspeople. Shouts of "Kill the Yankees" echoed throughout the crowd.

Some U.S. military officials recog-nize the potential of the drug war for creating intense anti-American senti-ment. Long before Washington adopted its present aggressive posture, senior officers cautioned on May 23, 1988, in the Army Times that "more U.S. mili-tary activity aimed at stopping drugs, particularly in Central and South America where most illegal drugs are grown, would send the wrong message to nations in this hemisphere...."

U.S. presence strengthens insurgent movements

The U.S.-directed drug war is being exploited by indigenous left-wing in-surgent movements as well as right-wing authoritarian elements in Latin American military establishments to undermine the tenuous hold that those nations have on democracy. Radical
leftist groups especially use the U.S. presence as a focal issue to discredit existing regimes. Playing on national-istic sentiments, those groups call them-selves the "true" voice of the people and portray the democratic governments as U.S. lackeys that are willing to implement Washington's policies re-gardless of their dire effects on Latin Americans.

In Colombia, where the Barco gov-ernment is waging a renewed war against the drug cartels, anti-Ameri-can sentiment is on the rise. U.S. ac-tions have created "a mood of anti-imperialism that our guerrillas have failed to achieve in decades," remarked noted Colombian newspaper columnist Enrique Santos. The general popula-tion is becoming more responsive to the rhetorical appeals of left-wing insur-gent movements.

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucion-arias Colombianas, the largest rebel group, controls many of the coca fields. Indeed, its power is so entrenched that, according to The Washington Post, it can "levy taxes on coca cultivation and stand guard over cocaine processing facilities." It is not surprising, consid-ering the lucrative nature of the drug trade, that FARC is well financed and extremely well armed. Until its recent "peace accord" with the government in Bogota, another leftist rebel group — the 19th of April Movement (M-19) — engaged in similar coca production activities, allowing drug operations to continue in exchange for weapons or money.

In Peru the situation is even more precarious. Peruvian officials concede that the Maoist Shining Path guerril-las have used the U.S.-sponsored coca-crop eradication program in the Upper Huallaga Valley to so-lidify their power among the local peas-antry.

The relation-ship between leftist in-surgent movements and trafficking organi-z ations is complex. While conflicting inter-ests generally inhibit the formation of overt alliances — for one thing, the traffickers tend to be politically conservative — there is strong evidence of in-formal cooperation. Most notably, both factions share the desire to rid their countries of an American presence, as well as prevent extradition to the United States. The primary danger of the U.S.-directed drug war, though, is not that it helps cement an explicit narco-guerrilla alli-ance but that it enables the leftists to gain popular support from beleaguered peasants.

Strengthening Latin American militaries

There is also a danger that Washington's assistance to Latin American military establishments may increase the right-wing threat to in-cumbent democratic governments. Traffickers have significant ties to ele-ments of the military in several drug-producing countries. Moreover, in-creased military aid will inevitably enhance the power of the military sec-tor vis-a-vis the civilian sector. One especially ominous feature of the emer-gency aid package to Colombia that Bush announced in August 1989 was that so much of the materiel seemed to have little relevance to the drug war. The Colombian aid measure includes eight Huey helicopters to be used for transportation oftroops and equipment, small arms (such as machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and grenade launchers), and $8.5 million for fixed-wing aircraft. Although Colombian officials might be able to make a plau-sible case that the Huey could be used in the drug war, there is no similar rationale for fighter planes. When questioned by Congress about the tac-tical role of the latter in a conflict fought primarily on the ground, William Ben-nett could provide no concrete justifica-tioh. The drug czar apparently believed that the mere fact that Colombia re-quested the planes was sufficient rea-son to provide them. Such a policy on the part of the United States gives Latin American militaries carte blanche to fulfill their "wish lists."

Although the trend throughout Latin America in recent years has been toward civilian, democratic govern-ments, the military remains a potent political force in most countries. Given Latin America's history of coups, any action by Washington that strengthens the military is unwise. Indeed, U.S. leaders may be repeating the mistake that they made throughout the cold war when, in the name of fighting communism, the United States sent Latin America large quantities of mili-tary aid. The result was a proliferation of military regimes in the hemisphere from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s.

Asking Latin American governments to do the impossible
Both left-wing insurgent groups and anti-democratic military factions are strengthened by Washington's in-sistence that Latin American govern-ments wage war against an industry that provides jobs for significant por-tions of their populations and vital contributions to their national econo-mies. According to reliable estimates, as much as $1.5 billion in drug-traffick-ing profits circulated in Colombia's economy in 1988, accounting for 20 percent of its total export earnings. By some estimates, as many as 300,000 Colombians may be directly or indi-rectly employed in the cocaine business and as many as 1.2 million may benefit from the proceeds. Drugs are even more important to the economies of Peru and Bolivia.

By cooperating with the U.S. drug-crop eradication efforts, the Andean governments are drawing increasing fire from citizens who view such cooperation as a threat to their livelihood. When Bolivian president Victor Paz Estenssoro allowed the U.S. Army into that country for Operation Blast Fur-nace, he encountered intense political opposition from peasant and labor groups who argued that by preventing the export of the nation's number one cash crop, he was causing further dete-rioration of the already unstable econ-omy. Incumbent leaders in the drug-exporting countries ignore the views of such powerful political constituencies at their peril.

The probable result of the Andean Initiative will be to exacerbate already potent anti-U.S. sentiment and to strengthen indigenous anti-democratic forces. Ironically, by attempting to support beleaguered democratic re-gimes against the drug cartels, the Bush administration may ultimately under-cut, even discredit, those governments. The outcome would be a proliferation of successor regimes dominated by left-wing or right-wing authoritarian ele-ments that would be unresponsive to Washington's wishes not only on the drug war but on many other issues as well.

Rensselaer W. Lee III, White Labyrinth, Transaction, 1989.
Cynthia McClintock, "The War on Drugs: The Peruvian Case,"Journal of Interameri-can Studies and World Affairs, No. 30, Summer-Fall 1988.

Last Updated on Monday, 20 February 2012 20:06

Our valuable member Ted Galen Carpenter has been with us since Monday, 20 February 2012.

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