If at first you don't succeed, do the whole thing over again. To prove you have learned nothing from the experience, do it in a bigger way. This seems to be the administration's proposal when it comes to handling the drug crisis. Having found itself unable to staunch the flow of drugs into the United States, it now thinks it can do it at the source. The cavalry's been sent to Bolivia.
Naturally, word of the top-secret operation surfaced in the Bolivian press and reluctantly was confirmed by the U.S. Embassy in La Paz: "U.S. helicopters and U.S. personnel have been sent to Bolivia at the request of the Bolivian government to provide transportation support to Bolivian civil authorities." The helicopters are reported to number six, the personnel about 140 and the chances of their success about nil.
The field marshal of Operation Dope is Vice President George Bush. He is the same George Bush who is in nominal charge of the government task force that is supposed to interdict drugs on their way to Florida. The success of that operation is apparent on the streets of America: an epidemic of cocaine abuse.
The lessons of the Florida operation have been lost on the Reagan administration. Of course, more and more cocaine has been seized. It hardly matters. More and more cocaine is coming into the country -- up by over 100 tons since 1980. Not only is there too much coastline to patrol, but dope smugglers are no dopes. When Florida got hot, they moved to Louisiana and Texas, corrupting local law enforcement authorities along the way. What they have going for them is an almost endless coastline and an insatiable market. No matter. On to Bolivia.
Unfortunately, that South American nation is Florida in spades. If the administration thought it saw official corruption in the United States, then, to paraphrase the late Al Jolson, "it ain't seen nothing yet." Already, the first joint operation has been leaked to the press and a previous operation, launched by the Bolivians in 1984, tipped to the traffickers. A strike into the Chapare region, where about one quarter of the world's coca (from which cocaine is made) is grown, came up empty-handed. Bolivia tried another raid, with the same results. "And so it goes," as Kurt Vonnegut would say.
In fact, it goes the same way in this country. There are regions here -- Northern California, for example -- where marijuana has been grown illegally for years. It takes the most determined government effort to put the growers out of business. If that is the case here, consider the odds of achieving success in Bolivia. For many peasants, coca is their cash crop, and in some regions, the production of cocaine is the chief industry.
There is more than a good chance that the administration's Bolivian Bust is doomed to failure. But the real target of the operation appears to be not so much the Bolivian drug industry as it is American public opinion. The death of Maryland basektball star Len Bias and the resulting publicity about widespread drug abuse have put this vocally antidrug administration on the spot. Do something, it is urged.
And so it has. But in doing so, it has introduced American troops into a foreign country where, by proxy or otherwise, they will make war against the local people. Some of those people will be drug dealers. But, inescapably, some will not. Even in the United States, innocent people get arrested and sometimes killed in drug raids. If you don't think the same thing will happen in Bolivia, you must believe that benighted country is more efficient than our own.
Moreover, the president has obscured the line between military and civilian authority. Law enforcement in this country is a civilian concern. That is the way we like it -- the way our laws and traditions would have it. Now, though, the president is using the military as a posse -- to chase drug traffickers in distant Bolivia. An administration that is quick to respond militarily to crises that should be handled otherwise has crashed though a significant barrier.
It could be argued that the administration has taken an acceptable risk if, in the end, Bolivian cocaine is eradicated. But the chances of that are nil; dealers and growers will simply move their operations. Meanwhile, American troops are where they do not belong, fighting a war in Bolivia that cannot even be won at home. Usually, it is truth that is war's first casualty. In the war on drugs it appears to be common sense.