The emperor’s new clothes

President Obama criticizes Republicans of mindlessly beating the drums of war over Iran, but his own administration is unwilling to listen to any alternatives to the war on drugs.


“Those who are suggesting or proposing or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what the costs and benefits should be,” U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday afternoon during a press conference at the White House.

That’s sensible advice. President Obama should listen to what he’s saying.

Instead, while Obama lectured Republican presidential wannabes—and rightly so—for “the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war,” the U.S. commander in chief dispatched his full-grinned vice president to Mexico and Honduras to engage in some haphazardly martial chitchat of his own.

Responding to Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s call for an open and honest dialogue on the costs and benefits of the U.S.-led war on drugs, Biden offered this Yogi Berra-esque gem: “It warrants a discussion. It’s totally legitimate for this to be raised. It’s worth discussing… but there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

In other words, Republican saber-rattlers owe the “American people” a full PowerPoint presentation on the costs and benefits of war with Iran, but when it comes to discussing the equally addlebrained war on drugs, stale rhetoric and political boilerplate will do just fine.

Behind Biden’s chummy smile, his message was fangy in its hubris: If you banana republic types want to waste your time jibber-jabbering about drug-control alternatives, knock yourselves out. We aren’t budging. And that’s that.

Even if Uncle Sam wants to cover his ears and yell “I’m not listening! I’m not listening!” Central America needs to have an adult conversation about the drug issue on its own. Like sex, drugs are a taboo issue in conservative societies. But Central America is now old enough to discuss the issue like grownups (even if they are giggling on the inside).

President Perez should be commended for his political bravery for proposing alternatives to the drug war, and applauded for proposing a non-military solution to a problem that has his country in deep.

Violent and lawless, Guatemala is in one of its darkest hours—and that’s saying something for a country whose recent history is filled with terms like “indigenous massacre” and “scorched-earth tactics.” Guatemala, in part, is so screwed up because it has always tried to solve its problems by applying more force, more pressure, and more bullets.

So that’s why it’s so provocative that a hard-line military man who was trained in the infamous School of the Americas is now suggesting an alternative to more war. And like any general worth his stripes, Perez is not suggesting a battlefield surrender, rather a new tactic to defeat an old enemy that has only gotten stronger over the past decade.

As El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes said last month, before sheepishly flip-flopping on the issue, “decriminalization could give a strong financial blow to organized crime.”

Guess what? Funes is right (or perhaps was right, since he’s apparently changed his tune). The drug kingpins don’t care about losing lives in this war. Narcos are a dime a dozen in these parts. Shoot one, jail 10—it doesn’t matter, they’re all expendable and easily replaceable. In fact, Central American law authorities are probably doing the kingpins a favor by killing and incarcerating drug smugglers before they have a change to rise through the cartel ranks and become ambitious.

But if the authorities were to change tack and do something that actually hits the narcos where it hurts most—in their pockets—it would change the whole equation.

Indeed, the proposal to discuss alternatives to a never-ending drug war is about trying to think of new ways to win the battle before losing the region. If the goal in the drug war is a Pyrrhic victory, then by all means the Central America should stay the course—they’re more than halfway there already.

But interestingly enough, it took a retired general to actually start thinking about an exit strategy that puts all options are put on the table.

Perez’s call for dialogue shouldn’t seem so radical given the tremendous loss of lives, treasure and democratic degradation the current policies have caused Central America, especially the disastrous northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—the most violent region in the world. But in the game of realpolitik, Perez’s quixotic quest for creative alternative represents a frontal challenge to the U.S.’ strongest remaining hegemonic grip on the region.

Like the child who exposed the folly of the king’s revealing wardrobe in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Perez’s shout from the sidelines has exposed the absurdity of a drug war that is beyond reproach or reason.

Sadly, like the overexposed emperor for Andersen’s tale, Uncle Sam showed this week that it would rather continue to parade down the street with its butt hanging out, rather than take a clue from the murmuring crowd.

  • Melissa

    As always hon, so well written. I love having Nicaragua Dispatch to read every morning.

  • Darrylle

    Well written and wisely presented. Hopefully, we are waking up to the folly of this war.

  • Pedro Arauz

    Barack Obama, Caudillo not Emperor (please…)

    Caudillos typically bulldoze political opposition, become the dominant force in the economic life of the country, and establish a personality cult around themselves. They love power as much as they love themselves, and they aren’t bashful about using their power in defiance of precedents, constitutions, and democratic principles. Until a couple of years ago, I never dreamed that a caudillo could arise in our Anglo-American legal system, upwardly mobile culture, and enlightened constitutional order, but today it seems to be a distinct possibility. Consider the similarities between Barack Obama and the prototypical Latin caudillo.

    Will Barack Obama go down in history as the United States’ first caudillo? Probably not, if he loses the election this November. But if he secures a second term — well, we’ll just have to see.

  • Gerardo

    One of the problems when talking about legalizing is that so many politicians get paid, too, (and media people and opinion leaders and probably church leaders) by the drug bosses. And so all these facilitators do fight against legalizing of course. The producers side will pay any amount to keep it as it is.

  • Mark

    Governments and politics is just corrupt. Guys like Nadelmann out there fighting the good fight day in day out. Those are our patriots. Guys who actually give a shite about the right things and have not sold their souls for a seat at the table. Heroes. Justice, Karma, whatever you call it. Keep looking for it. There is always chance to get restarted.