Hillary Clinton, her supporters constantly assure us, is both extremely knowledgeable about policy details and very interested in foreign affairs.
A recent interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, in which Clinton got an unexpected question about how to stop violence in Central America, was a good opportunity to test this notion. The conclusion: Either she doesn't know what she is talking about, or her knee-jerk preference for the use of military force will lead to disaster south of the border.
The question was about her support for the coup d'etat in Honduras in 2009. After arguing her support was justified, she moved on to this broader point:
So I think we need to do more of a Colombian plan for Central America, because remember what was going in Colombia when first my husband and then President Bush had Plan Colombia, which was to try to use our leverage to rein in the government in their actions against the FARC and the guerillas, but also to help the government stop the advance of the FARC and guerillas. And now we're in the middle of peace talks. It didn't happen overnight. It took a number of years.
But I want to see a much more comprehensive approach towards Central America because it's not just Honduras. The highest murder rate is in El Salvador and we've got Guatemala with all the problems you know so well. [New York Daily News]
This answer is a comprehensive disaster. Plan Colombia, in brief, was a program of military aid to the Colombian government started by the Clinton administration and continued uninterrupted through the early Obama years. The most aggressive portion of it occurred during the first Bush term, and the intent was to attack drug production and trafficking, and help the Colombian government beat back FARC, a longstanding left-wing insurgency.
As Elizabeth Dickenson explains, the program was seriously troubled in many ways. Spraying coca fields with herbicide merely pushed production around, and government forces were implicated in many atrocities. However, it did help basically secure the Colombian state. From 2002-06, kidnappings and murder plummeted, and both Bush and then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe declared the program a huge success.
In response to those seeming results and pressure from the U.S., other Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, tried the Plan Colombia formula of using the military to crack down on drug cartels. The result was immediate catastrophe. Instead of tamping down on drug crime, the policy merely split the cartels, who then proceeded to fight brutally over who would get to control the disrupted drug trafficking routes. The murder rate in Mexico exploded, the violence becoming so extreme that it threatens the viability of the state itself in many areas to this day.
Well over 100,000 people have died in Mexico's drug war since 2006. Associated violence from similar campaigns in other Central American countries and spillover fighting has given Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador their own screaming crime emergencies and caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee for their lives.
And in Colombia itself, indicators have stagnated. The murder and kidnapping rates fell sharply through 2006, but have since plateaued. It turns out that a determined and brutal military campaign can defeat an internal insurgency — but cannot stop violent competition over drug markets, much less stop the flow of drugs to the U.S., which has continued unabated this whole time.
In other words, not only have we already basically tried the Plan Colombia formula for Central America, the results were nightmarish — and easily predictable. It doesn't take a strategic genius to realize that a politically-unified insurgency is going to be qualitatively different than a bunch of criminals supplying a black market, and hence require different tactics.
If we were genuinely interested in assisting Latin American states, the best thing we could do would be to decriminalize drugs, and remove the supply from the black market. Nearly a century of drug prohibition has categorically failed to stop the drug trade, but providing some legal supply (perhaps well short of full legalization, but that's another post) would deal the drug cartels a genuinely crushing blow. Not even Bernie Sanders goes that far, but it may be a different story in a few more years.
At any rate, it's possible that Clinton was just referencing some policies and acronyms to sound wonky. But if there's anything that characterizes Hillary Clinton's foreign policy thinking, it's a cast-iron preference for the use of force despite manifest, ongoing failures of it across the globe. Central America better get ready.