The U.S. government has unveiled a “new” strategy against transnational organized crime which is vintage Obama: long on politically correct rhetoric, short on actual policy changes.
The policy, which is available online, is the result of what the administration says is the first comprehensive review of the U.S. approach to fighting organized crime since 1995. It lays out the administration’s priorities in clear, concise language, even taking the time to define “transnational organized crime.” (What’s next? Organized Crime for Dummies?)
To be fair, there are some parts of the strategy that are positive. There is a clear recognition that transnational organized crime (TOC) is a potent force that undermines communities, governments, and economies across the globe. There is also a recognition that this is a complex, multi-layered problem that requires an equally complex multi-layered solution.
“To diminish these threats, we will continue ongoing efforts to identify and disrupt the leadership, production, intelligence gathering, transportation, and financial infrastructure of major TOC networks,” it reads. “By targeting the human, technology, travel, and communications aspects of these networks, we will be able to monitor and gather intelligence to identify the full scope of the TOC networks, their members, financial assets, and criminal activities.”
The administration is making a concerted effort to change the rhetoric. There is less emphasis on specific villains or on demonizing the amorphous enemy, which seemed to be used as a carte blanche for previous administrations to do what they pleased in foreign territories.
What President George H.W. Bush once hailed as a “war on drugs” has become a “pursuit of … enduring national interests.” It has been a long road, especially considering that combating the drug trade was once considered a legitimate pretext to invade a country (for a comparison, see Bush’s address to the nation after the invasion of Panama, below).
The Obama administration, for example, carefully placed the “Starts at Home” section first, emphasizing that the United States consumes too many illegal drugs and provides too many weapons that reach the hands of criminals.
It focuses on building up existing programs, especially with regards to cross-border cooperation and intelligence gathering. And it talks forcefully about “building international capacity,” perhaps the cornerstone of any successful effort to fight TOC.
However, the document’s language and approach give the impression that the administration only just discovered this difficult, complex problem. There is not anything particularly new or groundbreaking here, and the administration’s position often contradicts its own stated policies in other areas.
Take, for example, the alarm bells the administration sounds about TOC having an unfair competitive advantage in legal markets, something the report emphasizes in several sections. While it is true that criminal organizations’ participation in agriculture and service industries does distort local economies, there is no recognition of the unfair competitive advantage big agribusiness has in the home countries of these groups (and the United States), which may have contributed to unemployment and thus the creation of these large, illegally armed groups in the first place.
What’s more, the United States’ decades-long efforts to create “borderless” free trade zones throughout the hemisphere directly contradicts the government’s message that these countries need to tighten their borders and stop the flow of illegal goods and people moving north, and weapons and cash moving south.
Other contradictions are even more blatant. The strategy says, for instance, that the U.S. must stop the illicit flow of weapons to criminal gangs. However, the Obama administration has not empowered its own law enforcement agencies to do this, and does not have the political will to change the law to make this a reality.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has the same number of agents it had in the 1970s, which amounts to about 700 inspectors to keep watch over 120,000 licensed firearms sellers.
The ATF has had an interim director for the last five years, and the administration is happy to let it take all the blame for what is a witch-hunt (that has taken on the name of the operation “Fast and Furious“) by pro-gun advocates and their allies in Congress who would like nothing more than to see the agency disappear so no one will bring up the possibility of legislation that would really slow the flow of weapons: a national database that pings every time someone purchases a military-style assault weapon under the pretense of going hunting in the Arizona woods.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the strategy is the short shrift given to what is at the heart of combating TOC: strengthening institutions abroad that carry out the fight. From local police to national attorneys general, the battle against organized crime starts with good intelligence and ends with a strong justice system that locals trust.
That aspect is largely absent in Obama’s strategy, and the question of whether resources and effort get redirected towards this part of the struggle will do more to determine the future of the fight against organized crime than any goodwill rhetoric from Washington.