How Mexico's war on drug cartels is like the war in Iraq.

How Mexico's war on drug cartels is like the war in Iraq.

How Mexico's war on drug cartels is like the war in Iraq.

Events beyond our borders.
April 14 2009 6:53 AM

Calderón's War of Choice

How Mexico's war on drug cartels is like the war in Iraq.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón
Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Barack Obama may not have realized it while in Iraq last week, but when he comes to Mexico on April 16, he will once again be confronting the consequences of a war of choice rushed into by an unprepared president—in this case Mexico's Felipe Calderón. Having been sworn into office in December 2006, under the lingering clouds of an uncomfortably close election that July—an electoral triumph the left considered tainted—Calderón boldly legitimized his government, and changed the subject, by declaring war on the nation's formidable drug cartels and mobilizing the army against them. It was a smart, though short-sighted, political move that turned out to be a national security blunder his administration has been trying to recover from ever since.

The Mexican drug cartels have been prospering for decades. This is not a problem that appeared overnight, as some of the more sensationalist media accounts in the United States might suggest, nor is it an issue that threatens to topple or destabilize the Mexican state. But by confronting all the cartels directly, simultaneously, and stridently, Calderón has managed to ratchet up the mayhem, particularly the violence against public officials and innocent bystanders who were drawn into what had previously been spasms of mostly intramural violence among cartels fighting for market share.

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The parallels to the Iraq war are striking. For starters, the rationale behind Calderón's decision to take on the cartels shifts constantly—as did the Bush administration's reasoning for taking on Saddam Hussein—depending on the narrative being spun at any given moment and the speed with which past justifications started to ring hollow.

First, the cancer of the drug trade was eating away at the civic fabric of Mexico's democracy and its institutions. Then it became a matter of saving our children, because Mexico's consumption rates were rising (a claim the government has yet to back up with persuasive evidence). While in London for the G20 summit, President Calderón gave the impression that his decision to unleash the military on the cartels was made necessary by the United States lifting the 1994-2004 ban on assault rifle sales.

When governments keep changing the reasons that justify their actions, it probably means they were unhappy with their initial justifications or cannot divulge the real reason behind their actions. But Calderón can hardly come out and say, "We're in this mess because I won a very close election that a lot of people were questioning, so I needed to get people to rally behind me and the flag by taking on these bad guys."

The drug cartels are a vicious enemy of Mexican democracy and security; I don't mean to sound cavalier about that or to suggest that Calderón should have neglected the problem. But organized crime is a long-festering problem, not (to go back to the Iraq analogy) an imminent "ticking bomb" threat to the Mexican state that requires all-out war. By pretending that it was, Calderón violated the so-called Powell Doctrine, whereby a nation commits forces only when it can count on overwhelming superiority, an exit strategy, a definition of victory, and the full and lasting support of the people. Calderón never had the first three and may be losing the fourth.

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Had political motives not driven him to act hastily, the Mexican president could have begun by gradually building up the virtually nonexistent federal police force, undertaking judicial reforms, and ramping up intelligence-sharing and vetting procedures for law-enforcement agencies with greater U.S. cooperation than before. But all this could have been done without a showy declaration of war and an overreliance on Mexico's military, which raises a host of thorny long-term issues from human rights violations to political stability and civilian rule. As in Mesopotamia, the army was sent in without a cogent occupation strategy.

President Obama is now faced with an escalating conflict along his southern border, one on which his Mexican partner has staked all his credibility. And it is quickly becoming a test of the U.S. president's firmness as well, given the conservative choir north of the Rio Grande hyping the overwrought and fundamentally false Mexico-as-failed-state thesis.

Calderón got both governments into this predicament, and so Obama now needs to be part of the solution. Indeed, both governments must close the embarrassing gap between the alarmist rhetoric deployed to describe the war on the cartels and the meager resources deployed to fight it. In Washington, some say Mexico ranks with Pakistan as a potential worst-case threat to national security, but the modest $400 million per year Plan Merida assistance package is being implemented with glacial haste, as the Washington Post recently reported. It remains mired in debates about whether the Mexican government will be given three or five or eight helicopters in one or two years; of the first $400 million tranche, only $7 million has actually been disbursed.

For all his bravado, Calderón is also falling short in ways that would seem to belie the supposed gravity of the situation. Yes, it may be audacious to send thousands of troops to police the streets of Ciudad Juárez, but Calderón appears quite hesitant to overcome Mexico's traditional (and perfectly legitimate) sensitivities about sovereignty. This is not Colombia, where the only limits on U.S. military advisers were dictated in Washington. For all his talk about the dire threat to Mexican democracy and society, Calderón doesn't appear more eager than any of his predecessors to lift a lot of conditionality on U.S. aid. (This is a case where strings are attached on both ends.) There has been no talk of allowing U.S. advisers to help train Mexican federal police or special forces, to host joint intelligence units, or to allow U.S.-manned aircraft to help police Mexican airspace. These are serious taboos, in place for decades and for very good reason, but if this were really a struggle to save Mexico's children, wouldn't this be the time to revisit those taboos?

Obama has to press Calderón to be direct and specific about what he needs, rather than encouraging the Mexican government to continue its vague complaints about the shared responsibility that emerges from a problem fueled by U.S. guns, money, and demand for drugs. Obama should also insist that Mexico finally create the national police force that three successive administrations (those of Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, and Calderón) have promised in vain to build—and not just by putting army troops in new uniforms. At the moment, to use one of Calderón's recurring medical analogies, the malady (cancer) is being treated by the policy equivalent of a couple of aspirin. So something—either the diagnosis or the treatment—has to change. Or, to put it in the diplomatic language I picked up as foreign minister under Calderón's predecessor: It's time for both governments to put up or shut up.