Hubris

The Bush Administration continues to act internationally as if we had the sort of bargaining position we would have if we didn’t have our army tied down trying desperately not to lose the war in Iraq until after Mr. Bush leaves office. We don’t.

It is said that Voltaire on his deathbed &#8212 despite his loud anti-clericism &#8212 asked to be given the last rites of the Catholic Church. When the priest asked him, as the rubric required, “Do you heartily renounce and abhor the Devil and all his works?” Voltaire is supposed to have replied, “Father! Is this any time to be making enemies?”

Not only has the Bush Administration failed to figure out what it can’t get away with any more in domestic politics, it’s making the same mistake internationally. Now that the Iraq adventure has gone sour, decreasing the leverage we have over other governments and increasing their leverage on us, playing the arrogant hegemon isn’t just rude, it’s stupid. (That’s one good argument for getting out of Iraq ASAP.)

By now, in the neocon fantasy world, we were supposed to be working with a friendly (let’s not say “puppet”) regime in Baghdad, rolling in money and in a position to hand out huge concessions and oilfield-services contracts as the Iraqi oilfields got back into production, with forward bases putting us in a position to dictate to Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, and with no more troops tied down in Iraq than we wanted to keep at those bases as a means of power projection. That didn’t happen. We’ve got our army stretched to the breaking point trying to not to lose Iraq and Afghanistan until after Inauguration Day of 2009, and suddenly we need help from the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Syrians, and the Iranians, not the other way around.

Well, that’s life in the big city. Grown-ups would have responded to it by pulling in their horns. But the front page of the weekend Financial Times had one story about how the Bush crew had decided to pick a fight with the Merkel government in Germany over global warming, and another about how they’d decided to over-rule the Karzai government (and the Europeans, including the Germans, as well) and insist on spraying the poppy crop that accounts for a third of the GDP of Afghanistan. (Note that much more heroin made from Afghan opium goes to Europe than comes here.)

Don’t worry, says one of the diplomats on the scene; we’re not harassing the peasants, only the rich opium growers. Brilliant! While the fight between Karzai and the Taliban hangs in the balance, let’s annoy both our remaining allies and a bunch of influential Afghanis, in the service of a drug-control policy (crop eradication) of thoroughly proven ineffectiveness.

It simply isn’t the case that the size of the world’s heroin problem is limited by the size of the poppy crop; opium makes up such a small proportion of the price of heroin that heroin refiners will always be able to find someone to sell them as much opium as they need to make all the heroin the customers want to consume. To make matters worse, opium is easily stored, so inventories in growers’ and refiners’ stocks can easily tide the market over any temporary production shortfall. (That’s on top of the fact that an increasing proportion of the U.S. opiate-abuse problem involves synthetics such as oxycodone and fentanyl rather than heroin.)

Isn’t there some way to arrange for adult supervision in the White House? Or, in Casey Stengel’s immortal phrase, “Can’t anyone here play this game?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com