Meet the new drug war, same as the old drug war

Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drug war has been going on now for more than three years, and led directly or indirecty to the deaths of more than 18,600 people -- well over the number of U.S. troops killed on 9/11, and in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And yet it never seems to gain traction as a major subject of discussion here in the United States.

Will the killing of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez change that? The White House has already commented on the deaths, saying that President Obama is "deeply saddened and outraged by the news." The State Department is allowing its consular staff to leave cities along the border. Another 13 people were killed Saturday in the fabled resort town of Acapulco -- four of them beheaded. Mexican journalists are being terrified into silence. It certainly feels like we are entering a new phase of conflict.

And that's just Mexico, a relatively strong state. Countries in Central America are being overwhelmed by the traficantes. Guatemala just arrested its drug czar and national police chief for stealing some 1,500 pounds of cocaine from the drug dealers, and it's not clear whether the government there is strong enough to win this fight.

So what is Obama going to do about it? His administration has asked for $450 million from Congress to bolster Mexico's security and counternarcotics forces with new equipment, including helicopters and surveillance aircraft, as an extension of George W. Bush's Merida Initiative. That's on top of the $700 million Congress allocated for 2008 and 2009. Central America has gotten another couple hundred million. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Venezuela outlined a number of other related initiatives during his recent congressional testimony.

If you ask me, it all seems like doubling down on a failed strategy -- a typical example of trying to solve a social and political problem through military and technical means.

To her credit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the United States' own culpability during her recent Latin America trip. "The demand in the large market in the United States drives the drug trade," she said. "We know that we are part of the problem and that is an admission that we have been willing make this past year."

But she offered zero new ideas for addressing the demand side of the equation, and the administration's new drug budget looks a heckuva lot like Bush's drug budget, with its focus on interdicting supplies over treating drug addicts and reducing the secondary effects of drug use ("harm reduction"). Obama's drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, recently said that legalizing marijuana in any way was "a nonstarter," even as more states move ahead with their own decriminalization initiatives.

So are the Obamans  smart enough to know better, but trapped by politics and afraid to try a bold new approach? Or do they really believe in the drug war?

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Who's the boss?

I've been trying hard to find smart criticism of the Obama administration's decision to rebuke Israel for embarrassing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an area of East Jerusalem that lies outside the  Green Line that demarcates Israel's pre-1967 border. The rebuking began with Biden's statement Tuesday, escalated with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's angry 43-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, and continued with White House advisor David Axelrod today describing the housing announcement as an "affront" and an "insult."

Earlier in the week, Washingotn Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl complained that Biden had fallen into a "Middle East trap" by condemning the housing announcement. Diehl made some good points, but his argument would be more persuasive if it didn't cite Condoleezza Rice as an example of how to better handle this kind of Israeli ambush. 

All I could find today was this utterly unpersuasive blog post by Commentary's Jennifer Rubin, who says  that Ramat Shlomo carries "strategic importance" and that the notion Israeli settlements undermine U.S. security is "rubbish." It is very difficult to think of anyone who isn't a hardcore partisan of the Israeli right who would agree with these sentiments.

Meanwhile, the harsh U.S. criticism is having its intended effect, at least for now.  Israeli newspapers are jumping all over a chastened Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni is feeling emboldened, and some in the Labor Party are threatening to pull out of Netanyahu's coalition if he doesn't shape up. The Jerusalem council that approved the construction is planning to lay low next week.

I don't believe for a minute that this fight will make U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell's mission any easier; the conditions for peace simply aren't in place. But this showdown with Israel is important for a larger reason: the Obama administration desperately needs to show that it isn't going to be pushed around by anyone. Now that he has embraced a policy of confrontation, the president needs to follow through -- to back down would only signal to powers like China and Russia that Obama really is the pushover they've always assumed him to be.

UPDATE: AIPAC sides with Netanyahu, calling on the administration to "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel, with whom the United States shares basic, fundamental, and strategic interests." This could get ugly for Obama.