This article originally appreared at The New York Times as part of a panel on "Should U.S. Troops Fight the War on Drugs?" on May 8, 2012.
The expanded role of the U.S. Army’s special operations forces throughout the world now includes a deployment to Honduras, where it is helping fight drug smuggling. Should the military be involved in the war on drugs? Does military involvement in poor, weakly governed countries destablize them?
After the failure of our costly ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our government is expanding its special operations forces in many countries. The regular Army is deploying units under special ops as well, and now 600 American soldiers are operating in Honduras in the name of the drug war.
This emerging U.S. doctrine is glamorous and cheap, leaves fewer American casualties, and can be conducted in the shadows, undermining the checks and balances expected by Congress, the news media, investigative researchers and pesky protesters.
In Latin America, things may grow worse. The region knows, while North America forgets, that the C.I.A. and Green Berets tried to thwart 20 popular insurgencies and support military dictatorships for decades. Now in many of those same countries, like the powerhouse Brazil, the insurgents have come to power through elections, and the United States is marginalized, with most of Central and South America demanding alternatives to the military war on drugs.
After taking no action in 2009 to stop a military coup against an elected president in Honduras, now we are deploying 600 troops. Is it any wonder that we appear to be Yankee imperialists once again, and that no good can come of this?
Our open democratic society is threatened when too much secrecy surrounds decisions to hunt, kill and wage war. Drones and special forces are hidden from public view while glorified in films that make John Wayne seem modest. The official U.S. Army-Marine field manual even extols the once-discredited Phoenix Program of barbed wire, torture and “strategic hamlets” in South Vietnam. The top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, Col. David Kilcullen, has called for a “global Phoenix Program.”
If we must repeat history, it’s wiser to return to Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policies as the starting point. F.D.R. ended blatant U.S. military interventions and supported Mexico’s nationalization of oil, in hopes of forging a democratic hemispheric alliance in a threatening world.