George Shultz on the Drug War

By chillinwill · Oct 12, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    When George P. Shultz took office as Ronald Reagan's secretary of state in 1982, his first trip out of the country was to Canada. His second was to Mexico.

    "Foreign policy starts with your neighborhood," he told me in an interview here in the Canadian capital last week. "I have always believed that and Ronald Reagan believed that very firmly. In many ways he had [the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement] in his mind. He paid a lot of attention to both Mexico and Canada, as I did."

    Mr. Shultz, now a co-chair of the North American Forum—which pulls together members of the business and government community for an annual pow-wow—is still paying a lot of attention to the American neighborhood.

    These days that means taking seriously the problem of drug-trafficking violence on the Mexican border. "It's gotten to the point that . . . you've got to be worried about what's happening to Mexico, and you've got to realize that the money that's financing all that comes from the United States in terms of the profits from the illegal drugs. It's not healthy for us, let alone Mexico, to have this violence taking place."

    Mr. Shultz carries weight on this issue, in part because he has been thinking about it critically for decades and listening to our neighbors' viewpoints. He has long harbored skepticism about interdiction as a solution to drug abuse in the U.S. Those doubts were prescient.

    In 1988, Mr. Shultz recalls, he traveled to Mexico for the inauguration of President Carlos Salinas. After the ceremony they had a private conversation. "He said to me that he understood it was important for Mexico to do what it could to stop the flow of drugs into the United States. But he wanted me to know that the funds to support all that traffic came from the United States to Mexico." Mr. Shultz says that around the same time he heard a very similar refrain from the president of Colombia, Virgilio Barco.

    Mr. Salinas also warned the secretary that Americans should realize they are not immune: "This problem will spill across. Drug gangs will eventually be in the United States."

    In recent years, Mr. Shultz says, "There has come to be more and more of a realization of the nature of the problem. I thought it was interesting six or eight months ago, that three former presidents of Latin American countries, President Zedillo from Mexico, President Cardoso from Brazil and President Gaviria from Colombia made a report basically saying that we have to look at this problem in all of its dimensions if we are going to get anywhere with it. And we have to realize what its origins are."

    Yet it is also true that those presidents spoke up only after they left office. I asked him if there is any hope of policy leadership from those in office. "There is a certain amount of evidence that people are realizing the nature of the problem and have more of a willingness to try to deal with it."

    But, he says, we still have not created the "political space" necessary to raise the issue in public. "Right now if you are in politics you can't discuss the problem. It's just poison. The result is that we have this giant problem that is tearing Mexico apart . . . and we have plenty of problems here too and we're really not having a debate about it."

    Mr. Shultz is a strong proponent of education to reduce demand. "If we want to get serious about this issue, we should start with a gigantic campaign to persuade people that drugs are bad for them. And it has to be based on solid factual material. You can't try to mislead people."

    Yet that's been difficult because of the taboo. Mr. Shultz recalls what happened shortly after he left government, when his view that interdiction is not the solution came up after a speech to a Stanford alumni group.

    Then, as now, he believed that we need to look at the problem from an economic perspective and understand what happens when there is high demand for a prohibited substance. When his comment hit the press, he says he "was inundated with letters. Ninety-eight percent of them agreed with me and over half of those people said I'm glad you said it, but I wouldn't dare say it. The most poignant comment was from [a former member of the House of Representatives] who wrote and said I was glad to see your statement. I said that a few years ago and that's why I'm no longer a congressman!"

    I asked Mr. Shultz if he thinks a more sensible approach might come from the states. He says "people can express themselves a little better at the state level." And, with respect to some liberalization of the drug-possession laws at the state level, "I regard these developments as a distinctive statement by people that the present system is not working very well and they want to change it."

    October 12, 2009
    Wall Street Journal

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