George H.W. Bush’s biggest failure? The war on drugs

That was a noble but misguided sentiment. Policing can’t solve poverty, and targeting specific neighborhoods turned them into occupation zones where low-level dealing was one of the few viable job opportunities. Focusing on the retail end merely drew more and more people, predominantly people of color, into legal custody but did little to stem the tide — as the cops interviewed in the widely seen CBS news special “48 Hours on Crack Street” readily acknowledged — while dishing out punishment to inner city communities.

The instinct to punish drug users, particularly the poor, runs deep in American political thought, and the consensus supporting these tough-on-crime attitudes continued to harden as Bush championed the growing War on Drugs. On the first anniversary of Bush’s speech, Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates told the Senate that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” This wholly punitive approach reached its apotheosis with the 1994 Clinton crime bill and its notorious “three-strikes” provision.

For Bush, however, the War on Drugs offered more than just a chance to look tough on crime. It also had a powerful foreign policy purpose. An internationalist, Bush was eager to project American power abroad as the Cold War was ending. The drug war offered up a new evil to combat and an opportunity to restore faith that America’s military might could be successfully used as a force for good.