The issues our leaders are elected to grapple with are large. The things they find to fight about, once you pin them down to specifics, are too often vanishingly small.
Consider the current standoff between House Republicans and the Obama administration over “Operation Fast and Furious,” a mismanaged and ill-fated effort by the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to stem the flow of weapons to Mexico.
The big deal here is the war in Mexico, which has been raging since Mexican President Filipe Calderon sent his army after the drug lords in 2006. More than 47,500 Mexicans have been killed since then, the government reported in January, and the body count keeps growing. Just last month, 49 bodies were found outside of the town of Cadereyta Jimenez, their heads and limbs cut off.
The United States is intimately involved in this brutal war. Washington is providing equipment and training for the Mexican military and $1.4 billion in direct aid to Mexico.
America is supporting the other side as well, sending billions of dollars south to the drug cartels, money they use to pay armies of hit men, and to bribe Mexico’s police and elected officials. This war is as corrupt as it is bloody. Calderon put the army in charge because police and prosecutors had been killed, intimidated or bought.
But you can’t stop money from corrupting. Last month, three of the Mexican army’s top generals were arrested, charged with facilitating drug trafficking.
As the bodies pile up south of the border, Latin American leaders have begun pleading for a change in U.S. policies. America’s “war on drugs” has been going on for 40 years, without the slightest sign of success. Does anyone really think it is winnable?
At a South American summit conference in Colombia in April, several leaders said the U.S. should decriminalize some drugs to hit the cartels in the wallets. The president of Guatemala called for legalization, regulation and taxation of recreational drugs. All they got from Barack Obama was a noncommital response that it is “wholly appropriate to discuss the issue.”
After vague promises of change, Obama has turned out to be just another drug warrior. His top drug adviser initially promised the administration would no longer use the phrase “war on drugs” and would focus less on criminal enforcement and more on education and treatment, but beyond pushing through an overdue reform of cocaine sentencing rules, there has been little in the way of new policies.
There was some hope Obama would reverse the Bush administration’s hostility to state laws allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes. But in the last month, the Department of Justice has begun closing down medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado and California. Just this week, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, testifying before a House committee, refused to say whether marijuana is less addictive than heroin or methamphetamines.
Page 2 of 3 - “I believe all illegal drugs are bad,” Michele Leonhart said.
Voters in a dozen states have taken the task of reforming drug laws into their own hands, in part because Congress refuses to touch the issue. Decriminalization and medical marijuana initiatives will be on the November ballot in Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington, but almost none of the national politicians want to talk about it.
Instead, they want to talk about Fast and Furious, so let’s talk about it, and put it into context.
The U.S. doesn’t just send money to Mexico’s drug cartels, it sends guns.
As Calderon told a joint session of Congress two years ago, it’s hard for criminals to obtain weapons in his country but easy north of the border. When the U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons expired in 2004, he said, violence shot up in Mexico.
A recent ATF report concluded that some 68,000 weapons traced back to the U.S. have been recovered in Mexico in the past five years.
About 2,000, or 3 percent, of those weapons arrived through “Fast and Furious,” a sting operation that went wrong. ATF agents apparently lost track of the guns they were supposed to follow to the drug cartels.
Congress was right to investigate the operation, and the House Republicans’ chief investigator, Rep. Darrell Issa, has investigated with relish. Attorney General Eric Holder has testified nine times on the matter. The administration has turned over 7,600 pages of documentation, but Issa wants more. Holder has refused, Obama has declared the documents are protected by executive privilege, and everyone’s fired up about a constitutional confrontation.
But what about the other 97 percent of the U.S. guns falling into the druglords’ hands? The ATF has tried other ways to stem the flow. It initiated a regulation that multiple sales of semi-automatic rifles in border states must be immediately reported to ATF. The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence says the reporting requirement resulted in 120 criminal investigations in one year alone.
But the House majority has twice voted to deny funding to carry out the reporting regulation. “The cold reality is that Speaker (John) Boehner and his colleagues will exploit the 'Fast and Furious' fiasco for political gain,” the Brady Campaign said in a statement released this week, “but they have no intention of doing anything to curb gun trafficking because they long ago sold their souls to the gun lobby.”
Issa and his colleagues are playing “gotcha,” and it’s being taken very seriously by the folks who let Fox News tell them what is important. Not me.
I hold no deep respect or affection for the ATF (remember the Waco raid?), or the administration’s other drug warriors. People have already lost their jobs over “Fast and Furious,” and if more heads roll, including Holder’s, I’ll shed no tears.
Page 3 of 3 - But it’s a sideshow. “Fast and Furious” just confirms my longstanding conclusion that the war on drugs inevitably leads to tragedy, absurdity and unintended consequences.
The politicians don’t want to talk about the 40-year failure of the war on drugs, of which "Fast and Furious" is an infinitesimal part. They don’t really want to face the bloodied victims of America’s flawed policies and stunted politics or listen to the leaders of Latin American nations caught in the crossfire. Issa and the House Republicans have no interest in addressing the real problem. Neither do Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
“Fast and Furious” is a small deal. When our so-called leaders want to tackle a big deal like America’s crazy drug policies, I’ll take them seriously.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.