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A Failure of Vision

US Drug War Turns to International Combat

by TOM BARRY

The Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, released in late July by the White House, offers the strategic context for the increasing rhetorical focus of the Obama administration on “transnational crime,” “transnational threats,” and “transnational criminal organizations.” Over the past two years, administration and military officials have increasingly referred to the security threat of transnational organized crime – at home, along the border, and in Mexico and Central America.

The transnational rhetoric is a bit of a throwback to the mid-1990s.  In the wake of the Cold War and at the onset of the era of economic globalization, the Clinton administration, the U.S. military, and the nongovernmental policy community joined a new chorus in Washington warning about the rise of nontraditional security threats.

Not since 1995 has the U.S. government undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the threat of transnational organized crime.

The Obama administration, in its National Security Strategy (2010), began reframing security to include such nontraditional transnational threats and challenges as climate change, pandemics, and organized crime. Its new Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime expands this policy thinking about transnational threats.

As was the practice of the Clinton administration, the Obama administration repeatedly emphasizes the need for “international cooperation” – a marked change from the aggressive unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration. In a letter introducing the strategy, President Obama commits the U.S. government to “building a new framework for international cooperation” to combat transnational organized crime.

Questionable Factual and Historical Foundations

A review of the White House’s new strategy to combat transnational organized crime (TOC) raises questions about its factual and conceptual foundations.

Questions also need to be asked about the implications of the strategy for domestic and foreign security operations.

In the course of the last couple of years, when discussing the border and Mexico, officials from the U.S. military, Homeland Security, and Justice Department have been warning about  “transnational criminal organizations,” “ transnational crime,”  and “transnational threats” without defining them.

The new strategy statement helpfully addresses this failure to define terms by introducing the concept of transnational organized crime and defining it as:

“Transnational organized crime refers to those self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate transnationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and/or commercial gains, wholly or in part by illegal means, while protecting their activities through a pattern of corruption and/or violence, or while protecting their illegal activities through a transnational organizational structure and the exploitation of transnational commerce or communication mechanisms. There is no single structure under which transnational organized criminals operate; they vary from hierarchies to clans, networks, and cells, and may evolve to other structures.”

In a statement accompanying the release of the new TOC strategy, President Obama links the purported rise of the transnational crime threat since the mid-1990s to the onset of “technological innovation and globalization.”

According to the president:

“Transnational criminal organizations have taken advantage of our increasingly interconnected world to expand their illicit enterprises. Criminal networks are not only expanding their operations, but they are also diversifying their activities, resulting in a convergence of transnational threats that has evolved to become more complex, volatile, and destabilizing.”

In the strategy statement, the White House asserts that since 1995 transnational organized crime “has expanded dramatically in size, scope, and influence and that it poses a significant threat to national and international security.”

But how do we know this to be true?

The White House doesn’t bother in this strategy statement or anywhere else to back this assertion about the causal link between globalization and transnational crime with statistics or other supporting documentation.

Intuitively, one can easily accept the assertion that transnational crime (and what scholars refer to as “illicit globalization”) leverages the new instruments of the global economy – communications technology, rapid financial exchange, and free trade agreements – to expand its size, scope, and influence.

But any assessment about the rise of transnational organized crime in the age of globalization must also consider the steady decline in  national protections in the form of tariffs and quotas that historically have formed the breeding ground of international smuggling.

The TOC strategy statement regards the alleged rise in transnational crime as a function largely of globalization. Left completely unexamined is the role of government itself in the breeding of transnational crime and illicit globalization.

Today, probably more than ever in history, transnational crime is directly linked to national and international policies that prohibit or severely restrict commerce in certain goods and services — mainly drugs, migrant labor, sexual services, and weapons. Increased global trade and communications can and does facilitate illicit globalization. But illicit global trade is hardly a new phenomenon; it has long held a central place in international relations.

In the era of mercantilism and colonialism, the trade in goods from competing colonial power suffused the global economy in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Traffickers in illegal goods were known as “free traders.”

Globalization has certainly limited the scope of national sovereignty. But rarely in history have international borders and commerce been effectively controlled by national governments.

In “Illicit Globalization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Historical Lessons,” a forthcoming essay in the fall issue of Political Science Quarterly, border scholar Peter Andreas reminds us that during the 18th century “Britain eventually built up a sizeable coast guard force in response to rampant smuggling, but the most-important factor curtailing smuggling was the emergence of free trade in the nineteenth century, undermining much of the incentive to smuggle.”

Strategy without Strategic Planning

In its much-heralded new strategy to combat TOC, the White House offers 56 “priority actions.”  Yet all the promised actions are either replicas or echoes of existing policy.

Nowhere in the TOC strategy is there any reflection about the policy environment in which transnational crime breeds. Instead of any evaluation of policy reforms that might stanch transnational crime, the TOC strategy resorts to the traditional hard line — stressing the need for more and better coordinated law enforcement, border security, and intelligence operations.

It’s a strategy that is a synthesis of existing law enforcement imperatives rather than a serious initiative. It’s a strategy formulated, apparently, without strategic planning.

The Obama administration states that drug trafficking and transnational crime are closely intertwined. It notes, for example, that the “demand for illegal drugs within the United States fuels a significant share of the global drug trade, which is a primary funding source for TOC networks and a key source of revenue for some terrorist and insurgent networks.”

Yet there is no evaluation or defense of the drug prohibition policies that drive this illegal trafficking and associated crime.

Similarly, the White House expresses its determination to crack down on human smuggling but without any assessment of the policies – such as increasingly strict immigration policies and the border-security operations – that have dramatically increased the role of criminal networks in illegal immigration and illegal border crossings.

As part of its new professions of “shared responsibility,” the Obama administration vows to crack down on illegal arms flows to Mexico and other countries. Yet this commitment remains disconnected from other U.S. government policies that encourage U.S. arms production and export and that make weapons readily available.

The White House is rightly concerned with the international trafficking of women who are forced to labor as sex slaves. This traffic is the life blood of many organized crime organizations, both domestic and international. Yet the legalization and regulation of consensual sex services would go a long way to erode criminal networks that profit from the sale of sex, allowing the government to focus its crime fighting on sex slavery and concentrate its regulatory powers on improving associated public health and labor standards.

Aside from the core failure to address the policy origins of transnational crime, the White House’s new TOC strategy suffers from three fundamental strategic fallacies, particularly as the strategy relates to the border and Latin America.

1. Exercise of Power, Absence of Reason

President Obama vows to “integrate the tools of American power to combat transnational organized crime and related threats to our national security – and to urge our partners to do the same.” In essence, it’s a showdown where American power faces the emerging power of transnational crime.

The White House intends to win this contest, stating that it will deploy “all elements of national power to protect citizens and U.S. national security interests from the convergence of 21st century transnational criminal threats.”

The strategy isn’t exactly a declaration of war, yet President Obama describes the strategy as fundamental to U.S. national security. The White House states that it will “identify those TOC networks that present a sufficiently high national security risk and will ensure the coordination of all elements of national power to combat them.”

Construed as a power contest, the U.S. and its unnamed partners are certain to lose this match-up — just as it continues losing the four-decade long war on drugs despite its massive expenditures and routine exercises of the raw power of the U.S. military and law enforcement apparatus.

Without the profits from the illegal drug trade, the “economic power” of TOC would soon fade.

No matter how power America mobilizes to combat transnational crime, the power of the market and human desire will prevail.

A strategy directed by common sense rather power would likely be more successful in undermining transnational criminal networks and draining their economic power. A more reasonable strategy would not only acknowledge the centrality of drug trafficking in TOC but also take steps to break the cycle of illegality and criminality that besets the illegal drug trade.

Reason also dictates that the Obama administration start exposing the myths propagated by the drug war, including the myth that all illegal drug use leads to addiction; that all illegal drugs damage mind and body; that drugs now categorized as illegal are more dangerous than legal drugs; and that the despite the large variety of illegal drugs, they are more alike than different in their immediate effects and long-term consequences.

By addressing international drug trafficking and related transnational crime primarily with instruments of American power rather than with eminently reasonable policy reforms, the Obama administration is empowering not dismantling TOC.

2. Combating TOC with a Drug Free America

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 led to the creation of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy and created the institutional and legislative foundation for the U.S. to wage a multi-front drug war whose declared goal was a “Drug Free America.” Although the U.S. counternarcotics strategy no longer frames its mission in such ambitious (and delusionary) terms, there remains the conviction that illegal drug consumption can be successively reduced and even eliminated if we muster the needed collective and individual resolve.

When launched, the U.S. drug war during the Nixon administration was framed mostly a moral crusade to purify the country from the consumption habits of the counterculture and ethnic minorities. Since then a national security imperative has been coupled with the moral imperative against drugs — as first articulated in a national security directive issued by the Reagan administration in 1986.

The Obama administration, while distancing itself from the “drug war” rhetoric, has left unquestioned the basic tenets of the drug war, including the following: that drug flows constitute a threat to U.S. national security; that the proper combination of law enforcement, education, and treatment can significantly reduce demand; and that illegal drugs are equally pernicious and dangerous.

There’s no doubt that U.S. drug demand energizes the global drug market. But the corollary of this thesis — as articulated by the Obama administration in the TOC strategy and elsewhere — that holds that the U.S. has a “shared responsibility” in drug-related violence outside its borders is fundamentally flawed.

U.S. responsibility does not lie primarily, as the strategy asserts, in the U.S. demand for illegal drugs. The consumption of marijuana (the most profitable part of the transnational drug trade) and other illegal drugs is not  inherently an illegal or harmful practice. Rather than blaming drug consumers, the Obama administration would do better to attribute the responsibility for drug-related crime and violence to the U.S. government’s senseless drug prohibition policies.

America will never be drug free no matter how many drug wars are waged and no matter how many drug education campaigns are launched.

3. Transnational Security

The power and violence of drug trafficking organizations do have serious implications for governance and national security. Clearly, this is the case in Central America, where Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have increased operations during the past few years, and also in Mexico itself, where various regions are controlled by DTOs and related gangs, making governance impossible.

In the face of TOC, the National Security Strategy commits the U.S. government and military to “devise and execute a collective strategy with other nations facing the same threats.”

Echoing that collective vision of security, the White House’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime outlines a series of priority actions aimed to downgrade the security threat from TOC to a public safety threat. The White House says it seeks an “end-state” in which TOC is reduced “from a national security threat to a manageable public safety problem in the United States and in strategic regions around the world.”

The concept of collective security sketched out in the Obama administration’s national security strategy and its TOC strategy represents a transition away from a U.S.-centric view of national security. At first glance, it appears to constitute a clear advance in security thinking in the 21st century. After all, in an increasingly interconnected world, a threat to the security of one country or region can quickly become a more generalized security threat.

But there are dangers lurking behind this embrace of collective transnational security.

The lack of distinction between the perceived threats to U.S. national security and other nations leads to blurred policy and strategy.  The first obligation of a U.S. security strategy is to address real security threats to the United States. Neither in the overall national security strategy nor in the TOC strategy does the Obama administration make a convincing case that drug trafficking organizations constitute a threat to U.S. security. By stipulating TOC – which is overwhelmingly drug trafficking – as a U.S. security threat, the Obama White House recklessly creates a foundation for an array of military and other national security operations to combat this alleged threat.

Clearly, DTOs are more than just a public safety concern in Mexico and Central America. The countries of the region do have legitimate concerns that their very security is threatened by the economic power and the fire power of the DTOs. But this is not case in the United States, where in no substantial way does the drug trade threaten governance and security.

A more credible, less alarmist strategy to address drug trafficking and other transnational crime take more care in articulating how and under what conditions crime rises to the level of a security threat.

Dressing up the drug war in the framework of transnational threats and international cooperation represents a failure of vision. The Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime is simply another bureaucratic shuffle and makes a mockery of the administration’s declared commitment to “shared responsibility” for the drug-related crime and violence roiling Mexico and Central America.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars
from MIT Press. See his work at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/