Noam Chomsky on the 'war' on drugs that Western governments have been allegedly pursuing since 1989. In reality, their response to the drug trade has depended very much on who is doing it...
The war on (certain) drugs
One substitute in US foreign policy [for the US to justify military action
against grassroots movements for democracy and workers’ rights, etc.]
for the disappearing Soviet “Evil Empire” of the Cold
War has been the threat of drug traffickers from Latin America.
In early September 1989, a major government-media blitz was launched by the
President. That month the Associated Press wires carried more stories about
drugs than about Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa combined.
If you looked at television, every news program had a big section on how drugs
were destroying our society, becoming the greatest threat to our existence,
The effect on public opinion was immediate. When Bush won the 1988 election,
people said the budget deficit was the biggest problem facing the country.
Only about 3% named drugs. After the media blitz, concern over the budget
was way down and drugs had soared to about 40% or 45%, which is highly unusual
for an open question (where no specific answers are suggested).
Now, when some client state complains that the US government isn't sending
it enough money, they no longer say, "we need it to stop the Russians"
- rather, "we need it to stop drug trafficking." Like the Soviet
threat, this enemy provides a good excuse for a US military presence where
there's rebel activity or other unrest.
So internationally, "the war on drugs" provides a cover for intervention.
Domestically, it has little to do with drugs but a lot to do with distracting
the population, increasing repression in the inner cities, and building support
for the attack on civil liberties.
That's not to say that "substance abuse" isn't a serious problem.
At the time the drug war was launched, deaths from tobacco were estimated
at about 300,000 a year, with perhaps another 100,000 from alcohol. But these
aren't the drugs the Bush administration targeted. It went after illegal drugs,
which had caused many fewer deaths - over 3,500 a year - according to official
figures. One reason for going after these drugs was that their use had been
declining for some years, so the Bush administration could safely predict
that its drug war would "succeed" in lowering drug use.
The Administration also targeted marijuana, which hadn't caused any known
deaths among some 60 million users. In fact, that crackdown has exacerbated
the drug problem - many marijuana users have turned from this relatively harmless
drug to more dangerous drugs like cocaine, which are easier to conceal [or
heroin in prison, which is more difficult to detect in test].
Just as the drug war was launched with great fanfare in September 1989, the
US Trade Representative (USTR) panel held a hearing in Washington to consider
a tobacco industry request that the US impose sanctions on Thailand in retaliation
for its efforts to restrict US tobacco imports and advertising. Such US government
actions had already rammed this lethal addictive narcotic down the throats
of consumers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, with human costs of the kind
The US Surgeon General, Everett Koop, testified at the USTR panel that "when
we are pleading with foreign governments to stop the flow of cocaine, it is
the height of hypocrisy for the United States to export tobacco." He
added, "years from now, our nation will look back on this application
of free trade policy and find it scandalous."
Thai witnesses also protested, predicting that the consequence of US sanctions
would be to reverse a decline in smoking achieved by their government's campaign
against tobacco use. Responding to the US tobacco companies' claim that their
product is the best in the world, a Thai witness said: "Certainly in
the Golden Triangle we have some of the best products, but we never ask the
principle of free trade to govern such products. In fact we suppressed [them]."
Critics recalled the Opium War 150 years earlier, when the British government
compelled China to open its doors to opium from British India, sanctimoniously
pleading the virtues of free trade as they forcefully imposed large-scale
drug addiction on China.
Here we have the biggest drug story of the day. Imagine the screaming headlines:
"US government the world's leading drug peddler." It would surely
sell papers. But the story passed virtually unreported, and with not a hint
of the obvious conclusions.
Another aspect of the drug problem, which also received little attention,
is the leading role of the US government in stimulating drug trafficking since
World War II. This happened in part when the US began its post-war task of
undermining the anti-fascist resistance [which was often revolutionary, such
as in Italy, France and Spain]and the labour
movement became an important target.
In France, the threat of the political power and influence of the labour movement
was enhanced by its steps to impede the flow of arms to French forces seeking
to re-conquer their former colony of Vietnam with US aid. So the CIA undertook
to weaken and split the French labour movement - with the aid of top American
labour leaders, who were quite proud of their role.
The task required strike-breakers and goons. There was an obvious supplier:
the Mafia. Of course, they didn't take on this work just for the fun of it.
They wanted a return for their efforts. And it was given to them: they were
authorised to re-establish the heroin racket that had been suppressed by the
fascist governments - the famous "French connection" that dominated
the drug trade until the 1960s.
By then, the centre of the drug trade had shifted to Indochina, particularly
Laos and Thailand. The shift was again a by-product of a CIA operation - the "secret war" fought in those countries during the Vietnam War by a CIA mercenary army.
They also wanted a payoff for their contributions. Later, as the CIA shifted
its activities to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the drug racket boomed there.
The clandestine war against Nicaragua also provided a shot in the arm to drug traffickers in the region, as illegal
CIA arms flights to the US mercenary forces offered an easy way to ship drugs
back to the US, sometimes through US Air Force bases, traffickers report.
The close correlation between the drug racket and international terrorism
(sometimes called "counterinsurgency," "low intensity conflict"
or some other euphemism) is not surprising. Clandestine operations need plenty
of money, which should be undetectable. And they need criminal operatives
as well. The rest follows.
The “War on Drugs” serves these purposes very well for the US
Uncle Sam Really Wants, by Noam Chomsky. Buy What Uncle Sam Really Wants now.
Chomsky is of course an American citizen, and so “we” and “our”
refers to the US. The article has been edited slightly by libcom – US
to UK spellings and a few small details have been added for the reader new
to the topic.