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

Opinions about 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.