William Bennett's resignation as the nation's field marshal in the drug war says a lot about who is waving the white flag. The most powerful nation in the world can't stop a few bands of drug-dealing cutthroats in Latin America. And at home, the black market in drugs is thriving, despite feeble government sophistry about how a recent increase in street violence is supposed to be interpreted as a drop in the drug supply.
Bennett, an academic by training, has fought the war with sophistry, and his resignation will be painted in prosaic terms. Then he will be replaced by a low-profile person who will lower the profile of the agency until the public ceases to expect anything of it.
Bennett's strategy was to talk the enemy into submission. He fought a guerrilla war with words. There is some evidence that a few people listened -- not abroad but at home. Cocaine use among the middle and upper classes is on the decline. It is no longer fashionable to serve up cocaine like canapes at a party.
But the drug lords saw the yuppie trend and accommodated. They came up with crack, a cheap form of cocaine to tempt the poor. So now the government can boast that it has made progress, when the burden has simply been shifted to the backs of those who are least equipped to carry it.
Bennett's early exit after his flamboyant entrance is merely symptomatic of one major reason the drug war is flagging -- growing discontent among the allies. U.S. officials are being forced to acknowledge, although not publicly, that the governments of the supplier countries aren't 100 percent committed to wiping out drug traffic.
The mission of the drug war is lost on many Latin American leaders, their rank and file and the impoverished peasants who live off their coca crops. It is lost on the bureaucrats, judges, journalists and police officers who suffer when the drug barons lose their temper. Why should they put their lives on the line when the enemy is feeding the drug habits of Americans, including the mayor of the nation's capital?
The U.S. government continues to talk tough, befitting the drug threat and the street crime that it spawns. But that talk is cheap in the United States compared to the price the supplier nations are paying. And their enthusiasm is waning.
In Peru, where the cocaine trade brings an estimated $1 billion into the economy, newly elected President Alberto Fujimori has announced that Peruvian coca growers should be asked, but not forced, to switch to other crops. Any ultimatum that leaves the farmers without alternatives, Fujimori observed, could lead to civil war.
Fujimori is no radical, but he appears to have veered sharply from the crime-busting credo of Washington. He wants American money for development programs that presumably would wean the coca growers from the current crop. Forcible, wide-scale eradication of coca is viewed as a recipe for revolution.
Fujimori has reason to worry. He is staring down the gun barrels of the Shining Path guerrillas, a violent bunch that would easily recruit alienated peasants. Accordingly, he has turned back $36 million in U.S. military aid, holding out for something that is more economically oriented.
Meanwhile in Colombia, the seat of the powerful syndicates that control the majority of cocaine flow to the United States, drug lords are negotiating openly with their government to avoid extradition to the United States. They have offered to surrender themselves to local authorities in exchange for an end to the extraditions. They hope to influence an upcoming constitutional convention and rewrite Colombia's laws to make them more amenable to the drug trade. They are backing candidates to the convention who will do their bidding.
The reluctant Latin American nations can rightly say that the toughness Washington expects of them is not necessarily practiced at home. Washington Mayor Marion Barry got a slap on the wrist. Compare that to some of Barry's fellow mayors in Colombia who have been gunned down in the streets because they dared to speak out against the cocaine cartels.
Ultimately, any skepticism about Washington's own commitment to the war on drugs comes from the insatiable American appetite for them. Washington wants the supplier countries to cut off the flow because Americans can't say "no."
Americans cannot expect others to spill their blood for us in a war that America is fighting half-heartedly.