Over the years, the so-called global “war on terror” (or “war on terrorism”) has had its ups and downs as a foreign policy framing device. The George W. Bush administration, of course, relied upon the frame to sell virtually all its major foreign policies over a period of many years — even though the Pentagon at one point preferred “struggle against violent extremists.” Britain stopped using the phrase some years ago (at least in the Labor government).

Barack Obama’s administration allegedly abandoned the phrase very early in his term — in favor of alternatives like “overseas contingency operations.” However, with a little searching, it’s not difficult to find official spokespersons (like Robert Gibbs)  — or even the President himself — continuing to use those words after announcing that they wouldn’t.

Somehow, I missed the Obama administration’s similar early announcement that it was also going to stop using the phrase “war on drugs.” The Wall Street Journal reported this story May 14, 2009:

The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

We haven’t discussed the “war on drugs” very much here at the Duck of Minerva, but it has long had a significant effect on public policy — especially domestic policy as recently demonstrated in a drug-themed issue of The Nation. This is an excellent summary of the costs from Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander’s piece in that issue:

More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982, when President Reagan turned Nixon’s rhetorical “war against drugs” into a literal war against poor people of color. During the past few decades, African-American men, in particular, have been arrested at stunning rates, primarily for nonviolent, relatively minor drug offenses—despite data indicating that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison have been African-American, and when released they find themselves ushered into a parallel universe where they are stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the civil rights movement. People labeled felons are often denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—relegated to a second-class status for life simply because they were once caught with drugs.

She put the economic cost of the war at “more than $1 trillion in the past few decades.”

Clearly, America’s “carceral state,” which Charli recently mentioned, reflects the outcome of the drug war. Of course “contact with the criminal justice system” is going to be a “significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.” Felons are frequently denied the freedom to vote.

I recall more than 20 years ago thinking about writing a rhetorical analysis about George H.W. Bush’s use of the phrase “war on drugs” to rally support for his domestic and foreign initiatives. But I didn’t. The cold war was still raging, my dissertation concerned strategic defense — and I needed to find a tenure track job. Members of the IR Copenhagen School have long discussed the securitization of this issue, but few American IR scholars have taken it very seriously — even when it occasionally spilled over into “hot” rather than merely metaphorical war.

The Obama administration doesn’t use the phrase “war on terror,” but has escalated American intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The “war in Iraq” has ended, but 50,000 American troops remain to help provide security.

I suspect the decision to stop using the phrase “war on drug” will have similar policy consequences. Indeed, that recent issue of The Nation demonstrates the continued failings of U.S. policy in this area.

Share