Traveling in Russia, China, eastern Europe, and Latin America, Naím, the editor of Foreign Policy, realized that "there was much going on in those regions ... that we could never understand unless we paid more attention to the role of criminal activities in shaping decisions, institutions and outcomes." He might have well added to his list of regions some of the Middle East, much of central and eastern Asia, and almost all of Africa. Terrorism, gunrunning, smuggling, corruption, and organized crime have been with us since time immemorial, but today's threat is different in both scale and scope, thanks to globalization, advances in communications technologies, and weapons proliferation. Nonstate actors now wield a level of power and influence that once was largely reserved for states, and Illicit is a good primer on the various challenges they present to U.S. policymakers.
Naím appropriately castigates the Bush administration for focusing on states rather than nonstate actors, but he could have explored further the extent of the long-term damage to U.S. national security likely to result from this ideologically driven position. He also draws the wrong conclusion from the Clinton administration's weaknesses. Unlike his successor, Clinton clearly understood the significance of malign nonstate actors, and yet he was only moderately successful in taking action against them. Naím seems to believe that this was the case because the game is fundamentally unwinnable, and he thus favors legalizing certain of the crimes in question (although he is purposely vague about which). He also believes that bureaucratic turf disputes will inevitably get in the way of effective and coordinated policies -- a challenge that especially plagued the Clinton administration. But rather than throwing up his hands in despair, a more optimistic person might take heart from the long and difficult but ultimately successful efforts to force the country's military branches to cooperate under appropriate civilian control. The same could eventually happen with the law enforcement community -- and as Naím's book compellingly shows, it needs to as quickly as possible.