BOSTON — The man who trapped Saddam Hussein's elite troops in the Gulf war and helped rid America's military of its drug problem in the late 1970s now finds himself in the eye of a raging political storm in the US.
Republican Bob Dole and President Clinton are waging an escalating campaign battle over who is responsible for the rise in drug use among America's teens. Trying to stay out of the political crossfire and keep his eye on the problem of curbing drugs is Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Mr. Clinton's drug czar.
In a recent interview, the retired four-star general laid out his plans for maintaining a bipartisan approach and attacking drug use in the US. Although he does not like to refer to his effort as a "war on drugs," he has a battle plan and a clear objective: "Motivate America's youths to reject illegal drugs and substance abuse."
"McCaffrey's a guy to get the job done if it can be done," says Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, who served as commander of US troops in the Gulf. "He had one of the toughest and most dangerous missions in Desert Storm [leading a 'left hook' attack across the Euphrates River valley and trapping the Iraqi Republican Guards]. I gave it to him because I knew he was a great commander. You give him broad guidance, let him take the bit and run with it. He's going to get the job done."
McCaffrey, a highly decorated officer who also served two tours in Vietnam and was commander in chief of the Southern Command in Panama, draws on his military education and experiences. Certainly, he knows the enemy, spouting statistics on drug use, production, amounts confiscated, and programs that work, with barely a breath in between. Now, in the face of statistics showing a rise in teen drug use throughout the Clinton presidency, McCaffrey is working to rally America and lay out steps for achieving his goals.
Man with a mission
McCaffrey wears the civilian uniform of a suit and tie, but his close-cropped hair and staccato speech reflect a military grounding. Over and over, he pounds home the importance of education and prevention. His two-pronged approach is to direct such efforts at sixth graders and to develop better drug-treatment and aftercare programs for prisoners.
But "you have to do all of it," McCaffrey says. "You have to have a long-term focus of a decade or so. You have to do air, land, and sea frontier interdiction. You have to go to places like Bolivia and Burma - and, oh, by the way - Kentucky, Oregon, and Iowa to drive down methamphetamines, marijuana, PCP, and other drugs. They're complementary, not alternative, programs."
Above all, says the former general, you have to get the American people behind you. He argues that's how "we got out of the dreadful shape we were in in the 1970s, when we had 24 million Americans a month regularly using drugs instead of 12 million, which is the current case."
McCaffrey points to the way the military cleaned up its drug problem. "We were on the verge of being incapable of defending the country at the low point in 1973. By 1981, we had come out of it."
He says about one-third of military personnel were regularly using drugs, and another one-third would if they could get their hands on it. "Its impact on professionalism, on racism, gang rape, our health, and our spiritual strength was devastating."
The military combined education and prevention with drug-testing. Sergeants served as role models, treating soldiers under them with respect and setting high standards for them, McCaffrey says. Today, 1 to 2 percent of the military tests positive for drugs.
"Drugs were ripping apart the Army, as they were our whole society," says Gen. Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during the Gulf war. "We [got rid of drugs] in many ways: counseling, sports, and the old-fashioned way - with discipline and tough love."
General Powell, who after the Gulf war hired McCaffrey as an assistant at the JCS, adds that everything they did in the late '70s reflected a desire to put the right role models forward - including McCaffrey - for young, impressionable troops.
McCaffrey, who stresses the importance of quality family time and is a family man with three grown children married to "three sensible children like them," says he is optimistic about his job.
"I have a great belief that young people, when intelligently dealt with, [shown] dignity and given a positive alternative in life, would reject drugs," McCaffrey adds, shaking his fists for emphasis. A West Point ring and a wedding ring glint on his left hand.
One of his grown children, Tara Larson, says her parents were strong, supportive, and always looking for experiences that would "make us believe we could do great things." She says they always talked about goals, and that when school was out for summer breaks, she and her siblings had to sign agreements with their father on the number of books they would read and what kinds of experiences they planned to have. "We never were pushed, but were always aware that our parents had a lot of faith in us and that we could do anything we wanted to do - but that we had to do something."
Time for the 'integrity' talk
Mrs. Larson says her younger sister, Amy, who is now a school teacher, went on a month-long climbing expedition in Germany when she was about 14. Tara, now an Army nurse and expecting her first child, spent a summer between school years in a French-language immersion program.
For Larson, one family experience in particular reflects her father's values. Soon after receiving her driver's license, she was driving her girlfriends home (designated driver, of course), when she received a speeding ticket. The girlfriends and their moms tried to help, saying they would go to court to fight the ticket with her - that usually you can get your first one "rubbed off." They also offered to pitch in to pay for any fine so that her father would not find out.
But he did find out, she says, and he sat her down to talk about the "integrity" issues involved. "He just would never compromise his values at all for the largest or smallest reasons. And he wouldn't let us do that," Larson adds.
"[McCaffrey's] got impeccable character," says General Schwartzkopf. "The greatest thing about McCaffrey is his integrity. You can depend on Barry to tell it like it is. When he tells you something, you can take it to the bank."