Kleptocrats’ Swiss bank accounts

I have no idea how much, if any, truth there is in this story from Rupert Murdoch’s flagship rag. If it’s true, I’m not going to pretend to be shocked that the Bush Administration is twisting arms in various ways to get the UN Security Council vote it wants, that’s most of what “diplomacy” means. (Nonetheless, it’s worth counting the ill will this stuff is building up for us as part of the cost of the war. Neustadt’s point that a President needs always to consider the impact of what he does on the current issue on his capacity to get his way on the next issue applies to foreign policy as well as domestic politics.)

Actually, I’m delighted that the Bushies have figured out that if you want to put pressure on the governments of other countries, it’s both more effective and more just to aim at the leadership, rather than threatening the interests of the societies they govern with trade sanctions or aid cuts. (That’s the way I would have liked to see us deal with India over its testing of nuclear weapons: by identifying the key contributors to the BJP and figuring out ways to damage their business interests.)

But it’s worth pondering the implications of the following sentence, with reference to various third-world kleptocrats whose Security Council votes we want:

Others who have stashed billions of corruptly-gained dollars in Swiss banks have been warned that American intelligence agencies know their account numbers.

Assume for the moment the truth of that assertion, which, given its provenance, is no better than a coin-flip. Now think about the usual excuse for being stingy with foreign aid: “The rulers will just steal it.” If we know their Swiss (or Lichtensteinian) account numbers, why don’t we do something about it besides arm-twisting for votes at the UN?

That money is the rightful property of some of the very poorest people on this planet, and the fact that it can currently be stolen from them with impunity is most of what keeps them in poverty. The implicit promise to let the thieves keep their loot as long as they vote our way on Iraq is morally repugnant.

We’ve demonstrated the capacity to make the banking-haven banks cough up money derived from drug dealing. Money earned in the drug trade looks virtually clean when compared with, e.g., Mobutu’s fortune. No doubt, any move in this direction wouldn’t be universally popular among developed-country governments. But that shouldn’t bother the Bushies, should it?

[Thanks to Conrad for the pointer.]

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