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Rethinking Anachronistic US Policies

What is there in the American character that impels the United States government to persist in policies that are clearly not only failing to achieve their purposes but, worse, are doing harm?

Two current illustrations are drugs and Cuba. Both policies seem beyond dispute when in fact they should be controversial.

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In the case of drugs, surveys find increasing use among students even in the eighth grade. The official reaction is to call for more money, manpower, and technology to build more prisons, impose longer sentences, and try harder to control our porous borders. This does not diminish the drug trade; it only makes the trade riskier and thus more lucrative.

The effect is to produce an ocean of money that is corroding and corrupting our social order. If our decades-long fight against drugs has proved anything, it is that the demand for drugs is not affected by higher prices or shorter supplies. A policy of outlawing drugs does not make them scarcer; contrarily, it makes them more plentiful and more expensive. This increases the money available for other illicit enterprises. Our national aberration of prohibition of alcohol, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, is a precise analogy.

There is no question that alcohol and nicotine pose a greater danger to public health than cocaine and marijuana. Liquor and cigarettes are legal and are sold almost everywhere, but are heavily taxed and strictly regulated. Cocaine and marijuana are illegal and are sold widely; they are neither taxed nor regulated.

The case of Cuba presents the paradox that the less the island threatens US interests, the more strident US policy becomes. Madeleine Albright had not been secretary of state two days before she declared Cuba to be an embarrassment to the hemisphere. This is a considerable downgrading from the mortal threat it was considered by some of her predecessors, notably Dean Rusk.

But has US policy moderated in proportion to the reduced threat? By no means. We keep raising the standards that Cuba must meet to return to our good graces. First, Cuba had to sever its ties with the Soviet Union. This was not an unreasonable demand when Soviet missiles in Cuba triggered the crisis that pushed the world as close as it ever came to nuclear war. However, that was a generation ago, and the Soviet Union no longer even exists.

Now, to meet the stricter demands of the Clinton administration, Cuba has to become democratic and meet US standards of human rights. That is a good deal more than the administration asks of China or sundry other countries with which the United States conducts a robust trade despite political systems at least as oppressive as Cuba's.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has brought forth a report on "Support for a Democratic Transition in Cuba." In the foreword, President Clinton wrote, "Cubans ... desire to be free. The United States is committed to help the Cuban people in a transition to democracy." This is an echo of President McKinley in 1898.

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US policy toward Cuba has not only failed, it has made things worse. Cuba is no closer to democracy now than it was in the days of McKinley. Fidel Castro changed Cuba, but he did not destroy democracy: It was not there to begin with. Mr. Castro has survived nine US presidents, beginning with Eisenhower - most of whom have tried to depose him.

Current US policy has gone further and alienated key allies, who resent American efforts to force US policy on foreign companies. The Clinton administration has even lost the support of the Catholic Church.

The test of a policy is not its objective, but its effectiveness. It would be nice to have a drug-free America and a democratic Cuba, but we are not getting closer to either. The sensible thing to do is to try something else. Remember the wisdom of W.C. Fields: If at first you don't succeed, try again; but then give up.

Legalize and regulate marijuana and cocaine. Propagandize relentlessly against their use. This has worked with cigarettes. There is no reason to suppose it would not work with other drugs. It could hardly make things worse.

Relax about Cuba. Lift the sanctions. Remove this irritant from relations with our allies. Let the Cubans work out their own destiny.

It is unlikely that Congress would let Clinton change course on either drugs or Cuba even if he wanted to. This is a good reason to reconsider the presumed benefits of bipartisanship and to reflect on the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in giving us a government with a separation of powers.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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