Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. shocked people by saying before the inauguration that an Obama presidency would be “tested” within six months, and all eyes turned to the Middle East and to the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama soon duly sent 17,000 additional American soldiers to Afghanistan to turn the tide.
But as so often happens in foreign policy - remember Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Panama - the tests of an administration’s macho begin, to everyone’s shock and dismay, in small and unexpected places. That phenomenon is why this week we are suddenly focusing on our long-taken-for-granted neighbor, Mexico. Welcome to the future.
To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was visiting our beautiful but troubled friend to the south this very week. (The president plans to go next month.) And even before her trip, some intelligent moves were made.
The administration announced that hundreds more American security agents would be sent to the border regions, where drug cartels are going wild; that law enforcement personnel will be added to the American Embassy in Mexico City; and that, in general, the United States was going to “open the aperture” of the binational agenda so we do not focus only on the drug problem.
But the drug problem is becoming so overwhelmingly huge and dangerous that the truth about it badly needs more light focused on it. At least 7,000, and perhaps as many as 10,000 people, have been killed in Mexico in only the last year - probably about twice as many Americans who have died in Iraq since 2003. Between $18 billion and $39 billion in cash, wire transfers and other smuggled payments move from the United States to Mexico every year now, as the profligate American hunger for drugs threatens not only the victims of that appetite but also innocent foreigners and even nation-states.
Moreover, the Justice Department reported in December that Mexican cartels are the “biggest organized crime threat in the U.S.,” already boasting an operational presence in 230 American cities. We now have 6,600 licensed gun dealers along the southern U.S. border alone, and Phoenix has become the nation’s kidnapping capital, due to the drug trafficking there. No matter what we think, their problem is our problem, and our problem, theirs.
But let’s think of the philosophical questions that are both bigger and deeper - not only “How can we help Mexico, and ourselves, face this vicious turn of history?” but “What should be our foreign-policy focus - unknown lands halfway across the globe, or our own neighbors in the inter-American region?”
We remain painfully and, I believe, wholly unnecessarily committed in Iraq and even Afghanistan, which should have been a police/intelligence action instead of an all-out war against a shadowy and imprecise enemy. Right on our border, we are in a war that is no longer either shadowy or imprecise.
Indeed, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Latin America fellow, Shannon K. O’Neil, recently reported: “Drug cartels are adopting guerrilla-style tactics - sending heavily armed paramilitary battalions to attack police stations, ambush military brigades and assassinate high-level security officials, political officials and journalists.
“They also are adopting innovative public relations strategies … hanging ‘narcomantas’ - drug banners - in public places, placing videos on YouTube depicting gruesome murders and, more recently, staging street protests against the military’s presence in some of Mexico’s largest cities and most violent regions.”
With an estimated 100,000 fighters among the drug traffickers and 130,000 soldiers in the Mexican army, some analysts have begun to paint Mexico as still another “failed state.”
But let’s give Mexico some credit for a change. The moderate Mexican President Felipe Calderon has, for the first time, courageously challenged the druggies. He has sent more than 40,000 army troops to different Mexican states to combat the drug gangs. But he admittedly fights a strange war. This “war,” as the brilliant Mexican writer and editor Enrique Krauze wrote in the New York Times this week, “is no conventional war. … It is a war without ideology, rules or a shred of nobility.”
They - and, increasingly, we - are fighting the most vicious, murderous and mind-altered criminals and on a scale we are only beginning to contemplate, much less organize against. This new war demands that we now think about Latin America and our virtual lack of policy toward it in recent years.
We might borrow from a new book by the respected thinker Leslie H. Gelb: “Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.” Mr. Gelb argues that we are, in effect, already in a new era in which the United States remains the sole global leader, but without the power to dominate. Power is sometimes neither “soft” (persuasion and values) nor “hard” (military force) but psychological pressure based on the skilled use of carrots and sticks.
It is this kind of thinking that can help us face and prevail in what is ahead in Mexico, surely the one country we should be most deeply concerned about, for we are past the Age of Colonialism and the Age of Imperialism and probably also the age of conquering nations, promoting democracy or even nation-building.
Instead, we need to use many complicated tools against a very different and confusing enemy. The Mexican case shows us uniquely that, regarding the use of power, we are in the hardest era of all, a new Age of Diplomacy.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.