Opinion

The Great Debate

America’s perennial Vietnam syndrome

cfcd208495d565ef66e7dff9f98764da.jpg –  Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Prophetic words they were not. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all…The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Thus spoke a euphoric President George H.W.Bush early in March, 1991, shortly after the 100-hour ground war that chased Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the oil-rich U.S. ally they had invaded and occupied in the summer of 1990.

The specter of Vietnam, far from being buried in the Arabian sands, has risen again as President Barack Obama and his advisers are considering the course of the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, increasingly unpopular, and considered unwinnable even by America’s senior soldiers if it is fought alongside a corrupt government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

That the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well is obvious by the proliferation of analyses and commentaries drawing parallels, or dismissing them as nonsense, since Obama declared Afghanistan a war of necessity. (Type “Is Afghanistan Obama’s Vietnam” into the Google search box and you get more than nine million references).

Obama’s good war goes bad

Bernd DebusmannIn the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the most concise analysis so far has come from America’s top soldier: “If we don’t get a level of legitimacy and governance (there), then all the troops in the world aren’t going to make any difference.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking two days after Hamid Karzai was declared the winner, by default, in August elections so massively rigged that a U.N.-backed electoral complaints committee threw out about a million Karzai votes. That forced a run-off from which his challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, saying the second round would be just as fraudulent as the first.

So much for an exercise in democracy President Barack Obama had used as his rationale for escalating the war a few months after he took office. “I did order 21,000 additional troops there to make sure that we could secure the election, because I thought that was important.”

The lucrative business of Obama-bashing

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Four days before Barack Obama was sworn into office, a prominent radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, told his conservative listeners that a major American publication had asked him to write 400 words on his hopes for the Obama presidency.

“I…don’t need 400 words,” he said, “I need four: I hope he fails.”

“Lawless hordes” and the U.S.-Mexico border

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

On the first Sunday of October, the Texan city of El Paso recorded its 10th murder of the year. On the same day, El Paso’s Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez, recorded its 1,809th murder of 2009. Mayhem on one side of the border, relative peace on the other.

The contrast is stunning. According to an annual ranking compiled by CQ Press, a Washington publishing house, El Paso is the third-safest large city in the U.S. (after Honolulu and New York). According to a Mexican think tank, Ciudad Juarez became the world’s most violent city this year, torn by a vicious free-for-all involving warring drug cartels, hit squads, common criminals, and the military.

The two cities form a sprawling metropolitan area of some 2.5 million, divided by a river and a border fence; united by family and business ties, history and now a shared fascination with Ciudad Juarez’s gradual descent into criminal anarchy. El Paso’s citizens follow the bloodletting across the river with rapt and horrified attention.

Catch-22 and the long war in Afghanistan

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Listening to the protracted Washington debate over the war in Afghanistan, the phrase Catch-22 comes to mind. It was the title of a best-selling 1961 satirical novel on World War II by Joseph Heller and entered the popular lexicon to denote a conundrum without a winning solution.

Example: You can’t get work without experience and you can’t get experience without work.

Criminal anarchy on America’s doorstep

Bernd Debusmann-Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

When Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, ordered 2,500 troops and federal agents into border city Ciudad Juarez 17 months ago to tamp down drug violence, the monthly murder rate ran at an average of 66. In retrospect, those were the days of peace and calm.

Ciudad Juarez has become the most active front in simultaneous and increasingly bloody wars. One is between drug cartels fighting each other for access to the U.S. market. Another is between drug traffickers and Mexican authorities charged with imposing law and order. They have been singularly unsuccessful.

Despite a vastly increased military presence (now about 7,000, plus 2,500 federal agents), the monthly body count this year has averaged more than 180 a month. In August, the body count exceeded 300, a record. According to a study published in August by a Mexican non-profit group, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice, Ciudad Juarez (population 1.6 million) has become the world’s most violent city.

Undercounting deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

By most counts, the death toll of U.S. soldiers in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at 5,157 in the second week of September. Add at least 1,360 private contractors working for the U.S. and the number tops 6,500.

Contractor deaths and injuries (around 30,000 so far) are rarely reported but they highlight America’s steadily growing dependence on private enterprise. It’s a dependence some say has slid into incurable addiction. Contractor ranks in Iraq and Afghanistan have swollen to just under a quarter million. They outnumber American troops in Afghanistan and they almost match uniformed soldiers in Iraq.

The present ratio of about one contractor for every uniformed member of the U.S. armed forces is more than double that of every other major conflict in American history, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That means the world’s only superpower cannot fight its war nor protect its civilian officials, diplomats and embassies without support from contractors.

Fresh thinking on the war on drugs?

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -There are times when silence can be as eloquent as words. Take the case of Washington’s reaction to announcements, in quick succession, from Mexico and Argentina of changes in their drug policies that run counter to America’s own rigidly prohibitionist federal laws. No U.S. expressions of dismay or alarm.Contrast that with three years ago, when Mexico was close to enacting timid reforms almost identical to those that became effective on August 21. In 2006, shouts of shock and horror from the administration of George W. Bush reached such a pitch that the then Mexican president, Vicente Fox, abruptly vetoed a bill his own party had written and he had supported.What has changed? Was it a matter of something happening in August, when most of official Washington is on holiday? Or was it a sign of greater American readiness to rethink a war on drugs that has, in almost four decades, failed to curb production and stifle consumption of illicit drugs? And that despite law enforcement efforts that resulted in an average of around 4,700 arrests for drug offences every single day since the beginning of the millennium. (Just under 40 percent of those arrests are for possession of marijuana).Or was it a matter of more countries realising that, as drug reform advocate Ethan Nadelmann puts it, “looking to the United States as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal with race.” Nadelmann heads the Drug Policy Alliance, one of several groups lobbying for reform of U.S. drug policies.Under the Mexican law that took effect in August, it is legal to possess small, precisely specified amounts, for personal use, of  marijuana, heroin, opium, cocaine, methamphetamine and LSD. In Argentina, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional criminal sanctions for the possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use. The ruling opened the door to legislation similar to Mexico’s.Brazil decriminalised drug possession in 2006; Ecuador is likely to follow suit this year. In much of Europe, drug use (as opposed to drug trafficking) is treated as an administrative offence rather than a criminal act. America’s hard-line approach has helped to make the United States the country with the world’s largest prison population.Advocates of more flexible policies say they feel the winds of change beginning to rise in the administration of  Barack Obama, a president who has admitted that in his youth, he smoked marijuana frequently and used “a little blow”(of cocaine) when he could afford it. But hopes for a break from long-standing orthodoxy might be premature, even though a recent Zogby poll showed 52 percent support for treating marijuana as a legal, taxed and regulated drug.AMSTERDAM’S SCHIZOPHRENIC PRAGMATISM “As regards to legalization, it is not in the president’s vocabulary and it is not in mine,” Obama’s drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske said in July. “Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefits.”Oddly, he made the statement in California, where an estimated 250,000 people can legally buy marijuana with a letter of recommendation from their physician. The drug is used for a variety of illnesses, from chronic pain to insomnia and depression. There is extensive academic literature on the medical benefits of marijuana.Medical opinion, however, conflicts with the congressionally-mandated job description Kerlikowske inherited when he took up the post. It says that the director of the Office of National Drug Policy, the White House group in charge of drug war strategy, must “oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act.”Schedule I of the act, which took force in 1970 during the administration of Richard Nixon, the president who formally declared “war on drugs”, places marijuana alongside powerfully addictive drugs such as heroin. The wrong-headed classification matches that of an international treaty, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention of Narcotics Drugs. The convention is a major obstacle for signatory countries that want to legalize drugs.No country has actually done that. Even the Netherlands, the Mecca of marijuana aficionados, operates on a system best described as schizophrenic pragmatism. Amsterdam’s “coffee shops” are allowed to have 500 grams of marijuana on the premises and sell no more than 5 grams per person to people over 18. The runners who re-supply the shops routinely carry more than the legal quantity and violate the law. So do importers.While the failure of the drug war and the prohibitionist ideology that drives it have been analysed in great detail in scores of sober assessments by academics and government commissions, there have been few studies of the “how to” of legalization. What, for example, would happen to the criminal mafias that are now running a violent illicit business with a turnover estimated at more than $300 billion a year?Some drug traffickers would switch to other criminal activities and it is realistic to expect increases in such areas as cyber crime and extortion, according to Steve Rolles, Head of Research of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a British think tank. “But the big picture will undoubtedly show a significant net fall in overall criminal activity in the longer term,” he said in an interview. “Getting rid of illegal drug markets is about reducing opportunities for crime.”Rolles is author of the optimistically titled “After the war on drugs: Blueprint for Regulation,” a book scheduled for publication in November and meant to kickstart a debate on what he sees as something of a blank slate – the specifics of regulation for currently illegal drugs.On a global scale, nothing much can happen unless there are changes in the world’s largest and most lucrative market for drugs, the United States. If they happen, they won’t happen fast. “I see this as a multi-generational effort, with incremental changes,” said Nadelmann, who has been involved in drug policy since he taught at Princeton University in the late 1980s. “But for the first time, I feel I have the wind in my back and not in my face.”(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

Obama’s Afghan war – a race against time

Bernd Debusmann(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By making the war in Afghanistan his own, declaring it a war of necessity and sending more troops, President Barack Obama has entered a race against time. The outcome is far from certain.

To win it, the new strategy being put into place has to show convincing results before public disenchantment with the war saps Obama’s credibility and throws question marks over his judgment. Already, according to public opinion polls in August, a majority of Americans say the war is not worth fighting. Almost two thirds think the United States will eventually withdraw without winning.

There are similar feelings in Britain, which fields the second-largest contingent of combat troops in Afghanistan after the United States. A poll published in London this week showed that 69 percent of those questioned thought British troops should not be fighting in Afghanistan.

Human bargaining chips in deals with Iran

Bernd Debusmann (Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Seven summers ago, in a crowded conference room of a Washington hotel, an Iranian exile leader gave the first detailed public account of Iran’s until-then secret nuclear projects at the cities of Natanz and Arak. It greatly turned up the volume of a seemingly endless international controversy over Iran’s nuclear intentions.

The disclosures, on August 14, 2002, did little to earn the group that made them, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), merit points from the U.S. government. A year later, the Washington office of the NCRI, the political offshoot of Iran’s Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) resistance movement, was shut. The State Department placed the group on its list of terrorist organizations. (The MEK, also known as the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran, had been given that designation in 1997).

Now, another five summers later, two dozen MEK supporters are on hunger strike across from the White House to exhort the U.S. government to stick to promises to protect some 3,500 members of the organization in a camp north of Baghdad. Iraqi forces stormed Camp Ashraf in late July and the MEK says nine residents were killed in the initial assault. Two have since died of their injuries.

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