When Kerry is more hawkish than Bush

When it comes to the 'War on Drugs', Kerry may, incredibly, be even worse than George Bush

Johann Hari

The Independent

28 July 2004

Like most of the world, I'm hoping George Bush is booted out of the White House 97 days from now. Nearly four years ago, the President drawled that US funds must be withdrawn from any international agencies that provide abortion facilities. As a result, millions of desperately poor women in Africa and Asia have been denied basic clinical care; thousands have died. Three years ago, Bush vandalised all attempts at international co-operation on climate change. Glaciers are melting faster than any time for centuries; the low-lying island nation of Tuvala is about to disappear beneath the waves.

John Kerry would begin the slow process of stopping these cruelties. As a result, many of us imagine that the day after Kerry's inauguration, the world will be able to lean back, release a long sigh, and dismiss the Bush years as a one-term, one-moron nightmare.

We are deluding ourselves. When it comes to one of the most poisonous planks of US foreign policy today - the destabilisation of developing countries and the attack on poor farmers, all in the name of the "War on Drugs" - Kerry may, incredibly, be even worse than Bush.

Kerry made his name as a Drug War hawk. He dedicated an entire senatorial inquiry in 1989 to denouncing the Reagan administration's softness on international drug suppliers. His principal advisor on the subject today - and the man tipped by some commentators to become his Secretary of State - is Rand Beers, who defected last year from his role as Bush's counter-terrorism advisor. Throughout the 1990s, Beers was the primary architect of the US policy of "taking the fight to the drug-growers" - launching massive chemical attacks on farmers in foreign countries in an attempt to prevent their crops ever reaching America's shores. Beers' decision to switch camps been greeted by Democrats as heroic; and don't we all want a President who is tough on the suppliers of hard drugs?

Not if you are sitting in one of the countries devastated by the "War on Drugs", you don't. Beers is responsible for one of the greatest (and least reported) assaults on poor people launched by the US since the Vietnam War. Most of the cocaine snorted in US bars and beach-houses is grown in Colombia, so Beers started there. On the orders of the first President Bush - orders continued by Bill Clinton and the current President - suspected coca fields in the south of Colombia were sprayed by the US Army with a toxic chemical cocktail.

The result? The ecosystems that hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers depend on to provide food for their families were poisoned. Glyphosate, one of the chemicals used in Beers' Weapons of Mass Defoliation, kills all plants.

Sean Donohue, a US journalist who works with the Colombia Support Network, has documented the human cost. "In January 2001, I visited a government-funded yucca co-operative that was intended to help farmers find an alternative to growing coca," he explains. "The co-operative had been fumigated and the entire yucca crop [which is, of course, totally legal] had been destroyed. One woman explained she had invested everything she had in the co-op and now had no way to feed her children."

A study by Ecuador's Pontificia University discovered that people living near the sprayed areas have shown symptoms of chronic poisoning and temporary blindness since the aerial poisoning began. "There have been cases of babies born with deformities... The impact of glyphosate will be lasting, because not all of its effects are seen one day to the next," it found.

The farmers were growing coca out of desperation. Their soil is poor, and most cash crops wouldn't grow on their fields. (Two years on, nothing at all was growing in the sprayed areas).

When this was explained to him, Beers - Kerry's man - had no pity. "Well, you don't get a special pass for being poor," he shrugged to one interviewer. The US State Department claims that farmers are compensated for loss of "legitimate" crops, but the beneficiaries of this compensation are mysteriously hard to track down.

Oh, and cocaine supply to the US was not even dented by these policies, as Beers was told right from the beginning. Cocaine is so incredibly profitable that supply has simply shifted elsewhere. What is the US going to do now - glyphosate the world?

But Clinton and the Bushes loved these policies because they looked tough - and there have even been hints that Kerry will intensify them. Herbicide spraying is only the most obvious battleground in a war that is causing much wider devastation.

The prohibition of drugs does not eliminate cocaine or heroin; it simply hands them to a vast network of organised crime. Even in stable, well-policed societies such as ours, handing an entire industry to criminal gangs causes serious problems. Look at how Britain has in just a decade developed a gun culture, thanks to increasingly sophisticated drug-dealing syndicates. Look at the estates dominated by these gangs.

This is the impact upon Britain, a country where the drug trade forms about 1 per cent of the economy. Now try to picture the destabilising effect on Colombia and Afghanistan, where drugs contribute more than 40 per cent of GDP. Drug prohibition is the largest factor in the collapse of these two countries into gangsterism. It ensures that the biggest chunk of their economies is handed to armed criminals who cannot be taxed, regulated or brought under state control.

It's a recipe for chaos. The warlords of Afghanistan and the "narco-terrorists" of Colombia derive their cash (and therefore their arms and their power) from the drugs trade. The international prohibition of drugs is their lifeblood, and a guarantee of on-going civil war. Any attempt to build the rule of law in either country is swiftly butchered, because the gangs are guaranteed superior to the state. It is only once the drug trade is handed over to legitimate companies - and the gangs slowly bankrupted - that the long process of constructing a modern state can begin.

In a century's time, historians will surely consider it bizarre that progressives across the world focused their rage on opposing the Iraq war - which at least removed a genocidal dictator - and not on this war, which has no redeeming features at all. Public opinion in the US and Britain is obviously not ready for legalisation; it will take another generation for the comprehensive failure of this war to sink in. But in the meantime, Kerry will at the very least continue Bush's cruel policies. Flanked by the aggressive Beers and his reputation as an anti-drugs warrior, he might even be poised to step up the battle.

If you still feel a flicker of support for Bush and Kerry's war - despite the cancers and the chaos it spreads - look around you. Is all this international turmoil reducing the opportunities for your kids or your neighbours to get hold of drugs? Do you really think that if only we tried a bit harder, if only we sprayed poison on yet more poor countries and destabilised some others, drugs would disappear from our streets?

For the sake of the countless victims of Bush, we must hope for Kerry to win - but don't kid yourself that the day he comes to office, America's worst war will be over.

j.hari@independent.co.uk