Foreign Policy Briefing No. 71

Unsavory Bedfellows: Washington’s International Partners in the War on Drugs

Executive Summary

The United States has made common cause with an assortment of dubious regimes around the world to wage the war on drugs. Perhaps the most shocking example was Washington’s decision in May 2001 to financially reward Afghanistan’s infamous Taliban government for its edict ordering a halt to the cultivation of opium poppies.

Unfortunately, the fiasco with the Taliban was not an isolated example of U.S. collusion with unsavory governments. Throughout the 1980s U.S. officials heaped praise on Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega for his alleged commitment to the war on drugs. A decade later Washington did the same with Peru’s authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori. U.S. leaders have been so obsessed with advancing the drug war that they have repeatedly cooperated with regimes that they have otherwise treated as pariahs. Thus, Washington has cooperated with Burma’s military junta and Cuba’s Fidel Castro on drug policy even as it maintained economic embargos against both countries.

Such collusion reflects the frustration and desperation of U.S. officials as they have sought to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States decade after decade without meaningful, lasting success. Instead of accepting the reality that a prohibitionist strategy is inherently futile, U.S. administrations have compromised important American values and helped strengthen corrupt, repressive governments. Ironically, most of the regimes with which the United States has cooperated have not even been sincere in their anti-drug activities. In fact, they have usually been deeply involved in the drug trade. Ominously, the Bush administration may be heading down the same path with Colombia’s new president, Alvaro Uribe. U.S. officials are effusive in their praise of Uribe, even though there are serious questions about some of his political supporters. Given the mistakes Washington has made with other foreign leaders, greater caution would be advisable.

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Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (forthcoming, Palgrave/St. Martin’s).