On Drugs and Cuba, Domestic Politics Stokes International Embarrassment

By Conor Friedersdorf

Wary of changing U.S. policy, President Obama has been defending historic failures on the world stage.

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President Kennedy initiated the Cuban trade embargo and suspended diplomatic relations with that country. President Nixon declared America's War on Drugs almost ten years later. In ensuing decades, both policies abjectly failed to achieve their objectives. They've burdened other nations too. President Obama nevertheless defended these follies in recent days at the Summit of the Americas, where Latin American countries were as vocal about criticizing them as ever before. And because he knows as well as anyone that they're dumb, he wasn't persuasive in his arguments. He sounded like a man who couldn't speak forthrightly for political reasons.   

The headlines coming out of Colombia have focused largely on the Secret Service agents accused of hiring prostitutes there. A diplomatic embarrassment? Sure. But it's nothing compared to listening to what our president is telling audiences who know better about drug policy:


I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places. I personally, and my administration's position is, that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo.

One needn't support legalization to find this off key in parts and absurd in others. A "conversation" about "whether" the status quo is doing more harm than good "in some places"? Imagine saying that to a room with Colombians and Mexicans in it. How many tens of thousands have to die, how many square miles of territory must be controlled by narco gangs, before we stop conversing about the "whether" and start proposing desperately needed solutions?

The notion that legalization would be "just as corrupting" is the absurd part, for although it might well cause problems, there is no example anywhere of a legal product -- pharmaceuticals and alcohol included -- corrupting as much as illegal drugs have. Were drugs legal in most countries, legitimate businesses would get most of the profits from the drug trade; they'd have an incentive to eschew illegal behavior; and if nothing else the cartels would be less powerful absent the black markets that are responsible for much of the wealth and clout that they've amassed.  

Here's Obama at a different meeting:

Unfortunately, the drug trade is integrated, and we can't look at the issue of supply in Latin America without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States. I think the American people understand that the toll of narco-trafficking on the societies of Central America, Caribbean, and parts of South America are brutal, and undermining the capacity of those countries to protect their citizens, and eroding institutions and corrupting institutions in ways that are ultimately bad for everybody. So this is part of the reason why we've invested... about $30 billion in prevention programs, drug treatment programs looking at the drug issue not just from a law enforcement and interdiction issue, but also from a public health perspective. This is why we've worked in unprecedented fashion in cooperation with countries like Mexico on not just drugs coming north, but also guns and cash going south.

Pro tip: if agents of your government have recently sent guns south intentionally in a scandal that possibly implicates your attorney general, best not to brag about how you're working in "unprecedented fashion" to cooperate with your neighbors. And $30 billion in prevention programs and drug treatment in America? What possible difference could that make in the global drug trade? Every foreign leader in the room knows that Obama is too smart to think it will matter, and assumes that he's speaking in that way because American voters demand pandering.

It reflects poorly on all of us.   

On Cuba, things were just as bad.

As the New York Times put it, "By refusing to sign a statement that would have called for the next summit meeting to include Cuba, Mr. Obama avoided antagonizing some Cuban-American voters in Florida, a crucial battleground state in this year's presidential election." That's about right.

A majority of Americans want to end the embargo. Maintaining it as we trade with China and Saudi Arabia isn't easily defended. Obama himself ran on a platform of meeting unconditionally with the Iranians. But Cuba can't come to a summit for Western Hemisphere nations, despite the fact that isolation has failed for 50 years. And the rest of the world knows it's because our presidents pander to a subset of an ethnic group with a lot of members who live in a swing state.

Defending American interests is perfectly justified when they diverge from the interests of  other countries. Doing so when a policy hurts us and them just makes us look dumb, and unworthy of the outsized influence that wanes as we misuse it in ways our president can't adequately defend.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/on-drugs-and-cuba-domestic-politics-stokes-international-embarrassment/255928/