Shadow Government

Obama’s drug war is in disarray

Vice President Joe Biden was in Central America this week attempting to staunch the hemorrhaging of regional support for the U.S.-led War on Drugs.

His trip follows one last week by Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who similarly decamped to the region to buoy a faltering U.S. flag as drug cartel-fueled violence continues wreaking havoc on Central American societies.

What's caused this flurry of high-level administration attention to the region is a number of recent public statements by sitting Latin American presidents openly questioning the effectiveness of current counter-narcotics policies and calling for multilateral discussions on legalizing or decriminalizing the use of illicit drugs.

Those speaking include the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, but they also have received the sympathetic ears of President Santos of Colombia and President Calderón in Mexico. Their unprecedented statements can be seen as a measure of their collective frustrations at the ravaging of their countries by drug gangs just to feed the drug habits of recreational users in the United States.

But they also are indicative of the failure of the Obama administration to provide strong leadership and support as the drug cartels have reacted to strong government policies against them in Colombia and Mexico by relocating their operations to much more vulnerable countries in Central America.

Doubts about the administration's commitment to the drug fight were also fueled by the president's 2013 budget request, which includes a 16 percent reduction in counter-narcotics assistance to Latin America -- including a 60 percent drop in aid to Guatemala. That is hardly the way to win friends and influence people who are risking their lives against brutal and uncompromising enemies wealthier and better armed than they are.

It may be that these leaders don't really have any intention of decriminalizing or legalizing the use of drugs at home (profoundly risky, to say the least) and instead are desperately trying to get Washington's attention to the crises, but that is hardly comforting. Four decades of cooperation between Latin American governments and the United States on enforcement and eradication of illicit narcotics shouldn't come to this; instead of pushing forward to confront new challenges, we're are left trying to recoup lost ground.

To be sure, combating drug cartels is not a pretty business. One does not have to be a member of a peace brigade to be concerned about the impact of drug violence on Latin American communities, but excessive sentimentalism is rarely a sound basis for public policy. Especially when trying to confront drug gangs that have killed tens of thousands, fueled corruption by buying off public officials and undermining democratic institutions, and terrorized local populations.

Nor is lethal assistance the sole answer. These countries need across the board assistance to build up their judicial and penal systems and more economic opportunities for their people to depress the lure of the drug trade. But nothing is possible without re-establishing peace and security and that means employing superior force against those who prefer it the other way.

Unless the administration's approach to the increasing drug violence in Central America becomes more of a priority, they will continue to be confronted by counterproductive distractions like the current statements out of the region. For example, next month President Obama will travel to Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas. There are many issues to discuss with responsible governments looking to better the lives of their peoples. Drug legalization should not be one of them.

Even though Vice President Biden said all the right things during his trip this week -- "...there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization" -- the problem is he had to say it at all.


Shadow Government

Avoiding a bad nuclear deal with Iran

The P5+1 -- which includes the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia -- has just accepted an Iranian offer of further nuclear talks. These talks will come at a crucial time. The West has dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the Iranian regime through new sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports and its central bank, and President Obama in remarks on Sunday took a tougher line than he has in the past by ruling out the notion of "containing" a nuclear-armed Iran. The next round of negotiations will therefore be an important test of the notion that pressure can force Iran to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, as well as a test of U.S. resolve in the face of Iranian obstinacy.

Sanctions on Iran have undoubtedly had an impact, driving down the value of Iran's currency, driving up inflation, and making it difficult for Iranians to sell oil or even buy food. But making life difficult for Iranians is not the objective of U.S. policy; indeed, for many years it was American policy to avoid causing widespread hardship in Iran. The U.S. goal is to halt Iran's nuclear activities, and that has not yet been accomplished -- Iran is spinning more centrifuges, and manufacturing more and higher-grade uranium than ever before.

If the upcoming round of talks, like previous iterations, fails to yield progress, the U.S. will be left with little recourse other than additional pressure, while Israel will have additional incentive to carry out a strike. But another alternative exists, which President Obama has yet to rule out -- that the U.S. will draw back our own redlines and accept a nuclear weapons-capable, if not nuclear -- armed, Iran. This would be a dangerous miscalculation.

While the official U.S. and U.N. Security Council stance has long been that Iran must halt uranium enrichment as part of any serious talks, Washington has demonstrated tactical flexibility in an effort to allow Iran to "save face" and get negotiations started. From 2006-2008, the U.S. and its allies offered Tehran the so-called "freeze for freeze" deal, whereby Iran would merely temporarily freeze new enrichment and the West new sanctions, as a brief prelude to the full suspension of both uranium enrichment and sanctions implementation called for by the U.N. Security Council.

Similarly, in October 2009, the U.S. and its partners offered to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for the fuel plates Iran required to power its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), with which it manufactured medical isotopes. Washington asserted that the arrangement was intended as a confidence-building measure, but did not negate the U.N. demand that Iran suspend enrichment.

Recently, however, there have been signs of a U.S. shift. In his speech on Sunday, the President assiduously referred only to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, not a nuclear weapons capability. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has asserted that the U.S. redline is that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon. This leaves open the possibility of Washington acquiescing to a "latent" nuclear weapons capability, whereby Iran retains weapons-applicable components of its nuclear program, such its enrichment work, as long as it refrains from actually building a bomb.

Many analysts have urged President Obama to consider one of the various proposals that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, though perhaps under somewhat stronger supervision. One of these is the so-called Russian proposal, under which Iran would address the IAEA's questions in phases and the West would reciprocally ease sanctions. Another was the vague offer by Iranian President Ahmadinejad during his September visit to New York to cease Iran's production of highly-enriched uranium.

The allure of such a deal from the U.S. perspective is clear. Washington would cite the deal as a diplomatic triumph that averted war and limited Iran's nuclear capacity. Likewise, the Iranian regime, having compelled the West to recognize its nuclear status and retained its enrichment program, would tout the pact as a victory.

In reality, allowing Iran to retain its uranium enrichment program would carry serious risks for the U.S. and our allies. The Institute for Science and International Security warns that "without [a halt to enrichment], Iran's enrichment program would continue to grow in capacity and increase Iran's ability to quickly, and perhaps secretly, make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons in its centrifuge plants."

In other words, the Iranian regime would have its cake and eat it, too. The current sanctions drive would fizzle and existing sanctions would be eased or lifted. A military strike would effectively be taken off the table, including by Israel, which would likely feel constrained from attacking nuclear facilities blessed by the U.S. The Iranian regime, having succeeded in defying not only the U.S. but the entire Security Council, would be strengthened domestically. But the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons would not be removed; instead, Iran could perfect its nuclear expertise, stopping just one turn of the screw away from producing a nuclear weapon, or even building one clandestinely.

As our confrontation with Iran enters a new, more dangerous phase, the U.S. must avoid the temptation of redefining our redlines and objectives in a manner that fails to satisfy our national security requirements. To avert war and diffuse tensions through clever tactics and smart policies is admirable; to do so by abdicating our vital interests is not.