• Right time for debate
    April 23,2012

    Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it best: “We let the boss down, because nobody’s talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident.”

    “What went on in Colombia” is, of course, Dempsey’s reference to the scandal surrounding the misbehavior of several members of the American military and, most surprisingly and more prominently, the Secret Service, before and during President Barack Obama’s recent trip to the sixth The Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.

    The Secret Service has long been regarded as an elite element of the United States government, so respected and so proud of its own reputation that the disclosure that some of its revered agents had been recklessly consorting with prostitutes in Colombia shocked the country. The agency’s reputation for probity has been smashed and is in urgent need of repair.

    It’s been a bad month for Washington’s nonpartisan elite federal agencies: The highly respected General Services Administration was recently exposed as an organization that, at some levels, had seemingly become addicted to living the high life at the expense — the very high expense — of the taxpayers, who innocently believed the GSA was looking out for their best interests.

    Not surprisingly, some Republicans have sought to capitalize politically on these scandals, hoping the American public will blame the Obama administration for these misdeeds. The GOP hopes to evict the president come November, and any evidence of his administration’s negligence would surely improve the chances of that happening.

    But Gen. Dempsey’s point is more deserving of the American public’s attention, although it could be argued that the more the public knows about Obama’s performance in Colombia the more he may lose support from members of his own party. The thing is, the Secret Service scandal has totally obscured every other (and more important) aspect of the summit.

    For there were two issues on which Obama stood virtually alone during the debates in Colombia: The international war on drugs and the longstanding American isolation of Cuba. Only Canada sided with the United States on these two issues, and while there are respectable arguments on both sides of these debates, they are not getting nearly enough attention in this country because so much attention has been focused on the prostitution scandal.

    But elsewhere you’ll find more detailed coverage of the gathering in Colombia. For example, The Guardian, a London newspaper, offered this commentary: “The summit could well be remembered not for its failures, but as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.” Those are strong words, and they are deserving of our attention.

    The Guardian added that “the significance of what transpired … cannot be overstated: in years past, we’ve seen countless instances of former leaders, judges and law enforcement officers coming forward to argue the case for international drug policy reform, but this is the first time we’ve seen sitting governments openly discussing ending the war on drugs in a diplomatic setting.”

    Although he didn’t exactly join the call for its end, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, conceded that the war on drugs has failed. However, in an election year, it is difficult for an American president to embrace that concept, even though our nation’s appetite for illicit drugs continues to fuel the drug cartels.

    “I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places,” Obama conceded, but that’s as far as he would go.

    Yet isn’t it time, finally, for the United States to have that debate?

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