It’s amazing to see the elite consensus about Mexico congeal in real-time around failed ideas and political biases. In the wake of the massacre of nine Americans, including six children, earlier this week by cartel gunmen just fifty miles from the U.S. border, Bret Stephens of the New York Times already knows who to blame and what to do about it.
All it took was a quick flight to Mexico City and dinner with an elder statesman—and voila! Mexico’s problems, he says, are all the fault of Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the answer is to do in Mexico what we did in Iraq.
Let’s take these assertions one at a time, beginning with Stephens’ facile notion that the crisis in Mexico can be blamed on Trump and López Obrador, whose “managerial incompetence and ideological inanity” have apparently put the country on a fast track to becoming a failed state—all in a just a few short years.
How could this be? Stephens cites Trump’s demand that Mexico crack down on illegal immigration from Central America, claiming it has “drained its army of the manpower it needs to fight the drug cartels.” Never mind that the “army” López Obrador has dispatched to Mexico’s northern and southern border is largely a show force comprised of the newly-minted Mexican National Guard, distinct from the army and navy. And never mind that López Obrador has explicitly rejected using the military to fight drug cartels. Whether the National Guard were deployed to Mexico’s borders or not, it wouldn’t have any effect on the Mexican army’s manpower or the Mexican president’s unwillingness to use it against cartels.
The larger absurdity in Stephens’ argument is the idea that Mexico’s troubles date roughly from Trump’s election in 2016. But of course Mexico has been a collapsing state for decades, and no U.S. administration, Republican or Democrat, has bothered to take Mexico’s problems seriously or revise a de facto American policy of benign neglect south of the Rio Grande. More than 250,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars since 2006, some 40,000 have gone missing, meanwhile drugs have continued to flow north even as the cartels have branched out into myriad illicit business activities like extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling and trafficking, and fuel theft on a mass scale.
Whose fault is that? While successive U.S. administrations have erred in not viewing Mexico’s decline as an urgent national security issue, almost all of the blame for Mexico’s troubles lies with its ruling elites, who too often have been willing to enmesh themselves with powerful cartel business interests, drain public coffers for their own enrichment, and turn a blind eye to endemic corruption.
As if to underscore his seeming ignorance of all this, Stephens writes that former President Enrique Peña Nieto, “believed that economic prosperity and political reform would be an antidote to criminality.” That’s ridiculous. Peña Nieto didn’t believe for a second that economic prosperity and political reform would do anything about criminality, mostly because he didn’t want to do anything about criminality. His policy was to ignore it, and his presidency was predictably plagued by graft scandals and corruption on a grand scale.
There’s a reason, for example, that upon assuming office in 2012 Peña Nieto immediately put an end to the policy of allowing U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to vet senior Mexican officials, as it had been doing in cooperation with Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon. There’s also a reason that one of Peña Nieto’s last acts in office was to shield his administration from a sweeping corruption investigation that threatened to implicate high-ranking officials.
The Lessons Of Iraq Don’t Really Apply Here
Stephens is at least correct about López Obrador’s weak response to escalating cartel violence. He cites record homicide levels and the recent fiasco in the northwestern city of Culiacan, where heavily-armed Sinaloa cartel gunmen defeated the Mexican National Guard in a pitched battle and forced government troops to release one of the sons of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
What should we do about all this? After chatting with a former senior U.S. intelligence official, Stephens concludes that what Mexico really needs is a counterinsurgency campaign like the Iraq “surge.”
It’s unclear if Stephens is arguing the U.S. should lead an Iraq-style counterinsurgency, or that we should assist Mexico with one. Either way, someone should pull him aside and explain that Iraq is not exactly a success story in the annals of American foreign policy. (Just this week, government forces shot and killed four protesters amid mass anti-corruption demonstrations and escalating civil unrest that have left more than a hundred dead and thousands more wounded across Iraq)
The overarching lesson of our Iraq misadventure is that the American people won’t support long-term occupations and counterinsurgencies, no matter how much the elite establishment tries to sell us on them. President Obama’s premature and disastrous withdrawal from Iraq was the result of popular demand: he ran for president partly on getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, just as Trump did. There’s no way the American people would support any kind of lengthy deployment of U.S. forces to Mexico for an Iraq-style counterinsurgency campaign, no matter the chances of success.
Let me be clear, because earlier this week I argued that it’s time for the U.S. to wage war against the Mexican drug cartels. But by “wage war,” I certainly didn’t mean doing in Mexico what we did in Iraq. We’ve got other options. Beyond sanctioning Mexican elites who are in business with the cartels and cutting off their access to American institutions, we could unilaterally launch a brief, punitive strike against cartel elements in northern Mexico responsible for the recent massacre of American citizens.
That wouldn’t solve Mexico’s long-term problems, but it would at least send a message to the cartels and corrupt Mexican officials in their pay that under Trump, the price for killing Americans will be unbearably high. An added benefit is that unlike the Iraq war, it would be popular, which is one reason Stephens and the rest of the elite establishment would probably oppose it.