When President Obama head to Colombia this week for the Summit of the Americas, he will face some difficult and important questions that no president before him has really had to answer. With the U.S.-led drug war into its fourth decade, the leaders of South and Latin America are demanding change and reform from the largest importer of drugs in the hemisphere and the mightiest enforcer of drug prohibition. Despite the growing influence and voice of our southern neighbors, President Obama lacks the incentives and the principles to stop, or even commit major reforms on, the disastrous drug war.
Since the early 1970's, the U.S. government has pursued a highly militarized and aggressive policy domestically and in the rest of the Western hemisphere fighting the consumption and sale of substances they label “illicit.” And while the U.S. has had mainly a free hand in Latin and South America enforcing the drug war, that is quickly changing. According to the Guardian, “that mood is starting to shift and America's position is now being challenged, increasingly and vociferously, by its neighbors in South and Central America.”
Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil have all expressed a strong desire to engage the U.S. and have even taken steps toward decriminalization. They are reacting to what the drug war has created in their countries; like Prohibition in the U.S., ruthless cartels are lured by the artificially high profits the drug war creates to enter the black market and are willing to commit horrendous acts of violence to in order to do so. Much of South and Latin America has been ravaged by drug gangs and violence; tens of thousands of people have died in Mexico alone in the last five years as a direct result of the drug war.
Given these trends, it is obvious why many of these countries’ leaders will be eager to have President Obama’s ear in Colombia. But even after four decades of war, Obama likely won’t be listening. Although calling the drug war a “failure” while campaigning in 2008, Obama has maintained the status quo.
Although the horrors and injustice of the drug war should be obvious, Obama has very little incentive anyway to implement reform. With only a small outcry from us libertarians and his Republican opponents either ignoring the issue or advocating even more draconian drug war measures, there is little political will to urge change in a policy that does so much harm but which too few Americans understand.
Obama may shock me and do the principled thing by calling off the drug war tomorrow, but he has shown very little interest in ending wars; only expanding them, be they in Colombia, Yemen, or Africa. The only thing that might change his mind would be the possibility of a radically pro-civil liberties third-party candidate stealing some of his votes away, and one can only keep his fingers crossed.
This mess is not entirely Obama’s fault, of course. A war on individual liberty and responsibility - which is what the drug war amounts to — has been declared on the American people (and expanded southward) for about a century now. But if Obama ignores the incredibly valid concerns of the countries that have been damaged so directly by the drug war by turning down their hands of engagement and diplomacy, then, like his expansion of the War on Terror, this will be another disastrous war to add to his legacy.