The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, November 03, 2003

State Department man i/c Plan Colombia: Pollyanna or ga-ga

I had been nosing around the State site to see whether Bolivia - the current Holy Grail of the blog - had come in for any comment since the boilerplate stuff following President Carlos Mesa's taking over at the helm.

But my eye was caught by an item flagged up on the home page - evidently thought by the high flyers in charge of the site to be worthy of the publicity: the transcript of a press briefing given on October 29 by Robert B. Charles, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

When it comes to embarrassment, State has had its share this year, what with Powell's cringemaking sessions at the UN Security Council earlier this year, listening the Blix and Baradei's slicing and dicing his WMD evidence. But reading the transcript truly makes the heart sink.

Charles' topic was
State Department's Air Wing and Plan Colombia
which one might have thought would demand a downbeat, if not sackcloth-and-ashes tone. What there is is one of those absurdly managerial, button-down-shirted Kennedy era efforts from the Pentagon Papers - only delivered somewhat in the style of Woody Allen.

The whole thing - the aerial eradication of coca and poppy fields - has been something of a rolling snafu. Charles does a good deal more than put a brave face on it. He's keen as mustard, a True Believer, evangelical in tone even when he feels it necessary to hedge.

You have to read it to get the benefit.

One of the hacks brings up a column by Robert Novak - who gets around - from September 25 on the Air Wing, under the head
Does State Department need its own air force?

Novak quotes a memo from
John McLaughlin, the State Department's director of aviation in the Bureau of International Narcotics
querying whether State is set up to control air operations in Colombia:
The Air Wing mission is . . . 'counter-culture' to the State Department's world of interagency policy coordination. Simply put: Dodging trees and ground fire over jungle terrain at 200 mph is not diplomacy, and diplomats cannot be expected to fully comprehend the complexity of the task and the level of support required.
with the result that the air force is
now at its lowest state of readiness

The really spooky thing is that the entire Plan Colombia eradication exercise has been consistently and publicly crapped on from several thousand feet by the esteemed Government Accounting Office. Its latest effort [1] is entitled
DRUG CONTROL: Specific Performance Measures and Long-Term Costs from US Programs in Colombia Have Note Been Developed
It's hard to think of a more complete condemnation of a programme by an accounting body! And the report includes links to earlier GAO reports: from October 2000,
DRUG CONTROL: US Assistance to Colombia Will Take Years to Produce Results
and from February 2002
DRUG CONTROL: Efforts to Develop Alternatives to Cultivating Illicit Crops in Colombia Have Made Little Progress and Face Serious Obstacles

Given that the GAO are not given to effing and blinding or the use of vulgarisms, it's fairly clear that their condemnation of Plan Colombia - in its execution, if not in its conception - is pretty well complete.

Meanwhile Assistant Secretary Charles gives us reasons why he thinks that, in the War on Drugs, we're reaching a tipping-point - though, typically of the session, it's three steps forward, two steps back:
So this is -- are we at the tipping point? I don't know. I'm advancing the theory that I think we may be. And I also think, incidentally, on coca and on poppy and on a number of other things, tipping points are characterized by the fact that if you push the extra effort, if you go the extra mile at the moment when it's needed, you get the tip. If you don't, often you get backsliding or you don't get the tip, and it just continues to stay at a steady level.

Now, I'm pretty sure that the US War on Drugs is a fairly minor cause of the economic woes of the Andean region in general, and Bolivia in particular [2]. If a President Dean, say, were to declare victory and bring the spraying planes home, Evo Morales' cocaleros would no doubt be drunk for a fortnight celebrating a famous victory over the gringo. But a price crash in coca paste in anticipation of a ramping up of coca production in the region might well mean that his boys would be no better off.

And an end to the War on Drugs would not increase Bolivia's natural and human resources by one iota [3].

The main benefit to ending the whole business would come to the US, not so much in budgetary savings - which would be chickenfeed in relation to the total budget - but in ceasing to make complete twats of themselves. An Administration which could recognise the whole business for the nonsense it is would enjoy the psychological release of shedding a fruitless burden - much as Britain did when it junked the Empire - and astound America's friends with its sagacity.

The chance of any administration doing such a thing is, of course, vanishingly small. But just as the demonstrative powers of DNA evidence have eroded support for the death penalty in the US, so truly risible performances such as Asst Sec Charles' should undermine the foundations of the futile War on Drugs.

Always look on the bright side of life...

  1. GAO-03-783 of June 24 2003: go here and scroll down for link to report.

  2. In terms of US defence aid, Colombia is Arnold Schwarzenegger to Bolivia's Gary Coleman.

  3. There could well be some effect (assuming that the La Paz government followed Uncle Sam's lead and allowed a free-for-all). But - and this is my point - the numbers need to be worked through: the cocaleros in the region couldn't just double their acreage without affecting the price; savings in security forces budgets might well be slight; a general d├ętente in the country might enhance economic growth a little.

    The total benefit might well be less than that to be derived from the proposed export of natural gas through Chile - which, if the binding referendum goes against Mesa, will presumably have to be forgone.

    Worth noting here - as the URL crops up - the October 26 WaPo piece by Jeffrey Sachs. He mentions the eradication efforts in Bolivia; but is more concerned with the general level of organisation and funding of the US aid effort (low, in both respects). He says, rightly, that

    Bolivia's chronic poverty is rooted in geography, demography, agronomy, climate, ethnicity and history.
    But, if the War on Drugs was dropped, and Bolivia snaffled the entire $10bn regular US aid budget for a decade, those factors would still leave the country poor - just (utterly simplistically) adding $10bn to the country's $21bn PPP-adjusted GDP, the number in the CIA Factbook, gives a per capita GDP of around $3,700 - on a par with Sri Lanka and Guatemala!

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