Certified Failure

Earlier this month when the Bush administration announced the annual certification of countries’ performance in anti-drug efforts, there was little controversy about which countries would face sanctions due to their poor performance. Instead it has become clear that most policymakers feel that the process has outlived its usefulness, and the debate has focused on identifying the best vehicle for reform.

Whatever the results of the annual judgment, the process hasn’t succeeded in reducing levels of drug trafficking or the supply of drugs entering the country. Despite the nearly $30 billion that the U.S. has invested in international drug control efforts over the past 16 years, the strategy has not succeeded in making a dent in the quantity of illicit drugs flowing into the United States. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Cocaine continues to be readily available in all major metropolitan areas.”

Instead, the process has been a source of tremendous resentment throughout Latin America. And why not? It’s rooted in the notion that illegal drugs are produced south of our border, and it assumes that our communities would be safe if only our southern neighbors would simply cease the production of drugs. But in the past, production has moved from nation to nation, continent to continent. The U.S., after all, possesses the world’s largest drug market and someone will supply it, no matter what the risks.

Several Latin American leaders, including President Vicente Fox of Mexico, and President Andres Pastrana of Colombia, have strongly addressed certification. Fox has made a strong case for ending the conflicts and finger-pointing that come with the certification policy. And Pastrana has laid out a strong argument for the U.S. to focus on reducing its demand.

Bush administration officials, eager to enhance cooperation in the hemisphere, have publicly stated their openness to ending the process. Secretary of State Colin Powell said of certification during his confirmation hearing, “But there are occasions where it becomes self-defeating and where it shows a degree of American hubris and arrogance that may not, at the end of the day, serve our interest all that well, particularly when we end up waiving it all the time. It becomes a little hypocritical, to be frank.”

In recent years the fight over Mexican certification in particular has revealed that the entire process is vague and inconsistently applied, and that the law undermines cooperation with important allies. Previous administrations have typically imposed unilateral sanctions only on countries with whom the United States has no relations, such as Burma and Afghanistan.

But the administration must continue with the scorecard approach until Congress passes legislation to suspend or change the process. However, it is clear that there is a growing consensus among policymakers that it is time to reform the process. Leaders in Congress and the administration have clearly indicated that the process is no longer a useful policy tool–now is the time for a change.

At present, the most viable proposal is the resolution introduced last month by Senators Dodd, McCain, Hagel, and Hollings, calling for a two-year suspension of the annual drug certification process. The Senate proposal provides the Bush administration with the opportunity to seek more effective multilateral mechanisms to address drug abuse and curb the violence and corruption of the illicit drug trade in the hemisphere. After all, Latin American governments themselves are extremely concerned about the national security threat posed by illicit drug production, distribution, and consumption. And they would dearly love to see a multinational approach to combating drugs.

Drug certification policy has been an obstacle to cooperation on other important issues. The resentment and hostility generated by drug certification undermine U.S. efforts to advance the interests we share with our neighbors in the hemisphere in promoting democracy, human rights, and broader prosperity. By suspending this unilateral approach, Congress can send a signal that the United States sees its Latin American neighbors as essential partners, rather than adversaries, in combating an international drug trade that destroys lives and threatens communities across the Americas.