America's Forgotten War

By Alfonso Cuéllar
Post-Wilson Fellow
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; 12:00 AM

On June 17, America's longest-running war reached another milestone -- 37 years and counting, with no end in sight. Hardly anyone noticed. Neither of the leading presidential candidates mentioned the struggle that has cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and countless American lives. A Senate hearing was held to mark the anniversary, but hardly anyone came.

A few weeks later, there was a major breakthrough in the war when three hostages -- the longest-held U.S. captives in the world at more than five years -- were freed in a dramatic military rescue. But few Americans had ever even heard of Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell or Thomas Howes or knew that when they were captured by guerrillas in Colombia, they had been fighting on the front lines of the U.S. war on drugs.

Declared by then-president Richard M. Nixon in 1971, the drug war no longer has the glitter it once had. Two decades ago, illicit imports of cocaine, heroin and marijuana and their use by Americans topped the list of public concerns in nationwide surveys at 22 percent. In January, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 1 percent of the population considered drugs and alcohol the most important problem facing the country.

Once a prime worry for every parent of a teenager and a subject of endless political debate, drug use no longer has "the dinner table salience it had decades ago," acknowledged David Johnson, who heads the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

An obvious reason is that there are so many other things to worry about, most recently the hotter, more immediate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prospect of economic collapse at home. But as the Colombia hostage story illustrates, the fight against illicit drugs goes on, and it is not without peril.

Nor is it without domestic consequences, as experts testified at last summer's poorly-attended hearing, chaired by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). About "500,000 persons are locked up for drug offenses in any one day" in this country, said Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland's criminology department. John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America noted that the annual economic costs of illicit drugs have grown significantly over the past 15 years; in a 2004 study, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) put the figure at $181 billion.

When he began the war on drugs, Nixon called it an "emergency response to a national problem which we intend to control" within five years. Demand, he said, was the engine that drove the industry and "when drug traffic in narcotics is no longer profitable, the traffic will cease." By the mid-1980s, the explosive mixture of crack cocaine and crime had led to tough mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug offenders and Ronald Reagan had labeled it a national security problem. With narcotics providing massive amounts of income to the Taliban in Afghanistan, FARC guerrillas in Colombia and other extremist groups around the world, President Bush has defined the drug trade as a major part of the terrorist threat.

But the war has arguably had little discernible effect on either supply or demand. At latest count, as Webb noted last summer, illegal drug flows are four times more valuable than global exports of beer and wine -- even though the street price of both cocaine and heroin are 80 percent lower than in the 1980s. Illicit drug use has remained relatively constant, involving about 8 percent of the U.S. population, since the beginning of this decade.

Despite occasional changes in tactics, the overall U.S. strategy in the war has been equally constant. About 75 percent of government expenditures has gone to reducing supply and enforcing the law at home and abroad, according to Reuter, with a vocal but less concerted effort in prevention and treatment.

"Funding tells you where the policy is," said Carl Meacham, a senior adviser to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In fiscal 2008, about $164 million was spent on prevention and treatment. The $200 million spent on domestic law enforcement does not include more than $500 million to combat drug trafficking and production in Colombia, or the percentage of Afghan war funds spent on combating opium poppy, or $465 million in emergency funds to support Mexico's anti-narcotics program.

"Every new administration . . . feels compelled to do something," said a Democratic staffer at the Senate Appropriations Committee. "Maybe this time we will have success, they say to themselves. The truth is, we can interrupt the flow, but not stop it. To think so is delusional."

Not everyone is convinced that the war effort is going badly. David Murray, the ONDCP's chief scientist, says there is ample recent evidence of disruption in the cocaine market. He cited a 2006-07 study that collected multiple reports in multiple cities of "more failed transactions in cocaine" and highlighted preliminary indications of rising prices and diminishing purity -- the most reliable measures of drug supply -- over the past 18 months. In March, ONDCP director Walters noted indications of a decline in workplace studies of both methamphetamine and cocaine use and other statistics indicating that fewer youths are using drugs.

But it is a sign of the complexity of the problem that those statistics are regularly questioned. The rationale for skepticism is quite straightforward -- since the drugs are illegal, it is hard to agree on how much is actually on the market. The best one can do is make educated assumptions and estimates.

Determining results in demand reduction takes time. Although there is "a slowly increasing acceptance of treatment" as a priority, said a House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic staffer, it is not an effortless sell for politicians. "Treatment is seen as coddling criminals," said Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America. There are few quick victories or easy statistics to make the case. On the other hand, there is data galore to demonstrate a commitment to tackling supply and the criminals involved in it -- thousands of crop acres eradicated, tons of drugs confiscated, hundreds of traffickers arrested.

Colombia, where 80 percent of the world's cocaine is produced, has been considered the frontline of the war since 2000. More than $5 billion has been spent, but again, there is little agreement on the outcome. The White House and Congress call it a resounding success. Colombia ran the "risk of becoming a failed state," the State Department's Johnson said, and now, thanks in part to U.S. assistance, it is an example of stability in the region. Democrats say they recognize that Colombia is much more peaceful and stable than it was a decade ago but that success has not significantly affected the flow of cocaine.

"Colombia started with one idea -- reduce the export of drugs to the U.S. -- and ended with another -- institutional strengthening," the Appropriations Committee staffer said.

Despite their sparring over Colombia, "both parties are frustrated by the lack of success" in winning the drug war, said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. "They know strategy has not worked -- it has not stopped the flow of drugs." A Democratic senate staffer cited "fatigue" with a war that has been "managed on autopilot" by successive administrations. When President Bush linked it with terrorism, he said, it "killed the debate on drugs."

The presidential nominees -- Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama -- have said little about the drug war. But there are signs on the horizon that it may regain its place as a first-tier issue. The warnings come from Mexico, where President Felipe Calderón's government is engaged in a fierce battle against violent, homegrown drug cartels that has already cost thousands of lives. It does not take a geography major to understand the implications for the United States if this war gets out of hand.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company