When President-elect George Bush announced a week before his inauguration that his new “drug czar” would be former Education Secretary William Bennett, the air began to seep out of the tires of his new presidency before it even got on the road.
Had Mr. Bennett ever participated in a drug arrest, had he ever worked for a law enforcement agency, had he ever conducted a criminal prosecution, had he ever held a top-level security clearance, had he ever dealt with a Third World government or with any of the thugs who habitually run such regimes, then his reincarnation under Mr. Bush as the coordinator of drug policy might be plausible. But the truth is, Bennett has performed none of these elementary functions of criminal justice, and when he appeared with the President-elect in January to share the limelight of his new job, his first stratagem in the war on drugs was to promise to quit smoking.
A week later Mr. Bush, during his inaugural address and in one of the displays of rhetorical passion in which he has learned to indulge, intoned that the scourge of drugs will stop. If his new czar manages to avoid contracting emphysema, that will be progress of a sort, but it will do nothing to sweep up the human garbage responsible for the multibillion-dollar traffic in poison that afflicts the United States. Unless it is swept up, the scourge will continue and eventually will consume the country entirely.
Americans and some of their leaders seem to understand this, and last year Congress mustered its nerve to pass a mammoth antidrug bill. But the new law, which created the post Mr. Bennett now holds, is the kind of measure in which congressional con artists have come to specialize. The law establishes tough penalties for “recreational” use of illegal drugs and permits (but does not require) the death penalty for some murders committed by some drug pushers. Barely a hundred executions have taken place in the United States in the 12 years since the death penalty was restored, and since more than three times that many murders occurred in Washington alone last year and nearly 50 murders took place here in January, the carefully constricted use of the scaffold that the new law allows is probably just for show. Mainly what the law does is increase the amount of federal funds devoted to therapy and education rather than law enforcement. Currently, only about a quarter of federal spending on drug control is directed to education. Under the “omnibus drug bill,” that proportion will rise to 50 percent this year and 60 percent thereafter.
The emphasis on education as the preferred means of fighting drugs reflects the now platitudinous idea that, as Mr. Bush himself has said, “The answer to the problem of drugs lies more on solving the demand side of the equation than it does on the supply side, than it does on interdiction or sealing the borders or something of that nature. And so it is going to have to be a major educational effort, and the private sector and the schools are all going to have to be involved in this.” The corollary, of course, is that the government shouldn’t waste too much time in slamming down organized criminals, smugglers, pushers, and their private torpedoes, that the way to fight drugs is through all the arts of managerial manipulation in which American civilization has come to excel.
Another corollary is that you don’t appoint as drug czar someone who is serious about the use of force, including lethal force, against the satraps of the drug empire. Mr. Bennett, The New Republic revealed last year, once sent a memorandum over to the Justice Department recommending that the US military “should do to the drug barons what our forces in the Persian Gulf did to Iran’s navy.” That sounds terrific—except that we didn’t do very much to Iran’s navy in the Persian Gulf What we mainly did in the Gulf, in the aftermath of Iranian mine and missile attacks, was to take out a few oil platforms after carefully warning the seagoing mullahs aboard them to get out of the way. We sent a few of the Ayatollah’s boats to the bottom and dried off some of his jolly tars after they landed in the drink. If we follow an analogous course of action against the drug barons, the American taxpayer may wind up paying for their sons’ college educations.
Mr. Bennett, however, also has made noises about waging what he calls “all-out war on drugs—with more resources for police, more prosecutors, more convictions.” Whether his tenure as drug czar will be as ferocious as it sounds remains to be seen, but personally I’m growing tired of hearing about the various “wars”—against poverty, crime, energy shortages, AIDS, terrorism, illiteracy, and child abuse—that professional bureaucrats periodically declare on whatever crisis crept into the headlines last week.
The truth is that American political culture no longer permits the prosecution of any kind of war because the elites that prevail in politics, the economy, and the culture rule and think in terms of manipulation, deception, and sheer fraud rather than force. Whatever problems, threats, and challenges they perceive they define in such a way that only manipulation and not coercion can respond to them. Not only do they manipulate the problem itself, but through public relations and image-mongering, they string along the American public. Criminals are to be rehabilitated and not punished; foreign threats are to be negotiated away or bribed with foreign aid and not fought; and war is redefined as “defense” and delivered into the hands of technocrats-in-uniform whose clearest sight of a battlefield is a computer simulation.
Of course, governance-by-manipulation serves the interests of those who are expert in it. In the case of the “drug war,” professional therapists, teachers, public-spirited entertainers, youth counselors, social scientists, and the army of PR technicians who jerk the images and symbols of mass “education” will accumulate small fortunes by battening onto the provisions of the new drug law and digging into the ample funds it places in their hands. Their ideas, knowledge, and opinions will provide the strategies by which the “war” is to be fought, and no doubt Mr. Bennett will have them in the front lines. How their onslaught will be received by the real czars of the global narcotics trade—the Colombian, Jamaican, Asian, and homegrown gangsters who murder whole families for fun and command wealth and weapons that some nations would envy—may easily be foreseen.
In reality, there is no foe in the war against drugs that could not be well met by a county sheriff armed with a wad of Red Man, a couple of .12-gauges, a local posse, and a few yards of strong rope. But the Supreme Court, the ACLU, the Justice Department, the Congress, and the witch doctors of the therapeutic-managerial state have long since taken care of that kind of response. Now we have to depend on the wit, wisdom, and collected memoranda of Mr. Bennett. I hope he’s successful in giving up cigarettes.