Containment worked for the Soviet Union. Do you think it will work for Mexico?
I figure that’s worth a post.
I’m reminded of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s classic science fiction novel The Mote in God’s Eye (they received substantial assistance from a certain obscure American sci-fi author named Robert A. Heinlein). In the novel’s back story, humanity developed faster than light travel, using the Alderson Drive, around the end of the twenty-first century. The Alderson Drive allowed starships to travel instantaneously between specific, relatively fixed points in space (Alderson Points). This allowed humanity spread out among the stars, leading to the formation of the first Empire of Man, led by the planet Sparta. The Empire eventually collapsed into chaos and civil war, throwing many worlds into technological backwardness and causing a general regression of technology even among worlds that maintained a semblance of advanced technology. After a few centuries, Sparta launched a massive effort to reconquer of its former empire. At the book’s opening, set in the year 3017, this reconquest has largely succeeded, resulting in a second Empire of Man.
While returning home from assisting the suppression of a rebellion on the planet New Chicago, the INSS MacArthur is diverted to intercept what appears to be an alien spacecraft. The MacArthur intercepts the ship, disables its defenses, and tows it back to the nearest colony planet. They find the pilot, a strange alien, dead and discover that the ship is powered by a solar sail and was launched 150 years in the past. The Empire dispatches two warships, the MacArthur and the INSS Lenin, to the star system the ship originated from, called the Mote in God’s Eye because of its appearance in the nighttime sky from the nearest human colony. The MacArthur will handle first contact duties and the Lenin, captained by Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov, overall commander of the mission and a ruthless officer who has already sterilized one rebellious planet in the name of Imperial reconquest, will provide overall security and avoid all alien contact.
The Alderson Point the expedition must traverse to reach the alien’s star system is located in the outer layer of Murcheson’s Eye, a red giant. Imperial ships are able to penetrate the star’s outer layer due to the Langston Field, a protective force field. They enter the alien star system and the MacArthur is able to make contact with the aliens, soon called the “Moties“. The MacArthur crew learns that the Moties have developed the Alderson Drive but not the Langston Field. This means that whenever the Moties tried to send a ship through the Alderson Point in the Motie system, it was never heard from again. All Motie ships emerged in the outer layer of Murcheson’s Eye, where, because they lacked the Langston Field, they were destroyed.
The humans discover that Motie civilization is hundreds of thousands of years old. While the Moties are highly intelligent, they breed so rapidly that they eventually destroy their civilizations in total wars fought over increasingly scarce resources. However, their rapid breeding rate and their practice of maintaining libraries containing the accumulated knowledge of previous civilizations allows them to quickly recuperate. Attempts at birth control have failed, so their inability to use the Alderson Drive has left them trapped in their home system, doomed to repeated cycles of birth and collapse.
The humans’s Langston Field, however, gives them a potential way out. Using the Langston Field, the Moties can escape from their star system. One faction of Moties favors taking this route but other factions realize that, even with the Langston Field, it would take them decades to reach planets that were unoccupied by humans. The cycle of overpopulation followed by total war would reassert itself, only now on an interplanetary scale. The Moties would have to try to take human planets, involving them in an existential struggle for survival with the humans, a war that, given their biological and technological superiority, the Moties would win. The humans are able to figure this out and decide to establish a permanent blockade of the Motie system. “Jump shock”, a neurological effect that affects Moties more than humans, leaves them stunned for prolonged periods of time after a jump between Alderson Points. This means that a task force of Imperial ships situated at the other end of the Motie’s Alderson Point can easily pick off Motie ships as they emerge from the Alderson jump, aided by the fact that the other end happens to be in the outer layer of a red giant. On this note, the novel ends.
Niven and Pournelle wrote a generally inferior sequel (Heinlein, after all, was dead), The Gripping Hand, twenty years after The Mote in God’s Eye. In The Gripping Hand, the Empire of Man is experiencing its own institutional decline when a proto-star in a nearby nebula is discovered that will create a second Alderson Point from the Motie home system. An Imperial task force is dispatched to the new point, arriving at just the same moment as the Moties. The Imperial blockade is broken. Hilarity ensues.
America’s worst president, the noted war criminal Thomas Woodrow Wilson, had one important insight in his long, cursed existence, though it was perhaps completely by accident. Wilson foresaw, after much kicking and screaming and foaming at the mouth, that a German victory in World War I would result in the permanent militarization of American society and the corruption of its people and institutions. So he intervened in Europe to prevent a German victory and then attempted to create an impractical new world order that would make the world safe enough for the United States to demobilize. Despite Wilson’s best efforts to the contrary, the United States was able to “return to normalcy” for twenty years thereafter but then the innate suicidal instincts of the Old World reasserted themselves. The New World was forced into yet another intervention to redeem the Old World from itself. Harry Truman attempted to demobilize the American military again after World War II but then he discovered that our erstwhile Soviet allies didn’t have the true interests of the United States at heart.
The only chance America had to avoid Wilson’s fears of a militarized American society would have been to immediately turn around and attack kindly Uncle Joe, a personage whom the Roosevelt Administration had just spent four years convincing the American people was really a splendid fellow. The only senior government official who seriously advocated preemptively attacking Russia was George Smith Patton, Jr. A freak auto accident soon removed Patton from the scene, a development many people greeted with relief. A preemptive attack to destroy Soviet Russia was not on the table. America had the Bomb, Russia didn’t, and that was enough for most Americans until, of course, it wasn’t.
An obscure American diplomat, one George Frost Kennan, exiled to Russia by FDR’s State Department, suggested a seemingly more palatable alternative to war on the Commies: clever and sophisticated State Department mandarins would be exquisitely firm in face to face meetings with the Russians. This, combined with clever cultural and political warfare, also run by a savvy State Department, would cleverly contain and undermine the Red Menace until they collapsed under the weight of their own internal contradictions. Unfortunately for Kennan’s vision of what eventually became known as the strategy of containment, it required an Army of Kennans. That meant it required an American political and educational system that could produce and sustain an Army of Kennans. That wasn’t in the offing.
While it must be admitted that Kennan, a Russia expert, had a good reading of the Russian psyche, it must also be admitted that Kennan had a substantially less sure grip on whimsical nature of the American psyche. American government, at least in the late 1940s, was run by a curious species known as American politicians, elected by an even more curious population known as the American people. Undermined by his unacknowledged ignorance, Kennan eventually faded to black and Paul Nitze came to the fore. Kennan’s version of containment was, “Let’s sip wine and exchange witty bon-mots with our equally sophisticated Russian counterparts, persuading them through the eloquence bestowed by our Ivy League education that this far they can come and no further“. Nitze’s version of containment was, “AMERICA SMASH!!!” The American people couldn’t understand Kennan’s infinitely recursive nuance but Nitze’s KILL THE REDS!!! was something any red-blooded American could get behind.
Then North Korea invaded South Korea, an attack that, in Kennan’s defense, might have been deterred by American diplomats clearly and firmly communicating to Stalin that South Korea was well within our political sphere of influence. Unfortunately, that would require a level of coherence that any truly American government rarely achieves. Even the Truman Administration probably didn’t know that South Korea was in America’s political sphere of influence until North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th Parallel. America was forced to massively rearm for a long-term Cold War and fighting “police actions”. Dwight David Eisenhower, born under the Old Republic and a veteran of the Old Regular Army, tried to attenuate the growth of this nascent militarization of American society but his eight years eventually ran out. In his farewell address, Ike infamously warned that:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Ike was leaning on a weak reed. Many things can be expected from the American people but “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” is not one of them. Ike himself recognized that the American people were part of the problem. Or at least their duly elected representatives. The original term Ike was going to use was military-industrial-congressional complex, but the niceties of domestic politics led him to leave it out. A threat that had haunted the United States since its inception, that a pig, once led to a slop bucket, will be disinclined to stop gorging itself unless, of course, it was offered an even bigger slop bucket, was realized in the defense procurement process. While much was needed to stare down the Red Menace, much of the defense budget was little more that pork. Precedent was set. The slop bucket was plopped down. The pigs were soon feeding at the trough and nothing could pry them away.
This is the great dilemma behind a strategy of containment. Instead of pitting army against army, containment pits society against society. A race was on between American and Soviet society, winner take all. The first society to blink due to fatigue induced by the prolonged state of siege required by containment would lose. The United States exploited Soviet society’s general backwardness, lack of flexibility, and economic stagnation to encourage general Soviet collapse. This, coupled with Ronald Reagan’s aggressive infatuation with Gorbachev and Gorbachev’s general (and fortunate) incompetence, killed the Soviet Union.
But the United States did not escape unscathed. As the “leader of the Free World”, we had to fund the economic revival of our protectorates by dropping our traditional trade strategy and opening our economy to their exports. This negated the wealth effect of FDR’s most successful economic policy. We had to fork out mucho dinero to protect our free riding dependencies while those same dependencies got to spend their money on economic development, debauchery, demographic suicide, soccer, and techno music. This led to a general collapse of our economic performance by 1973, as our dependencies developed massively redundant manufacturing capacity unfairly protected behind their own tariff walls. The United States was forced to resort to increased borrowing and financialization in order to maintain its competitiveness against the Soviet threat and some semblance of a standard of living for its population. Not only that, Soviet influence created a massive hippie epidemic that infected American public institutions and resulted in their gradual descent into hippie induced lunacy and a general ineffectiveness at anything other than breeding more hippies. The spigot opened by defense spending spread to other forms of domestic spending. Corruption followed, aided by quants, risk managers, post-modern philosophers, and swarms of lawyers.
But the fundamental problem the United States faced was that it was designed to be a challenger and then suddenly found itself in the unfamiliar position of hegemonic defender of the status quo. The United States was a challenger until 1918 and a hegemon in denial until 1947. It was culturally unprepared to be a hegemon. The United States soon found itself with its fingers in millions of pots. It’s attention was divided. This allowed challengers to the United States the strategic simplicity that the United States used to enjoy. Just as the United States was designed to challenge Perfidious Albion for hegemony, the new challengers were solely designed to challenge the Yankee Colossus.
While other challengers like China and zombie Russia are more prominent, there are other challengers to America that serve even narrower agendas. One of these is Mexico, our troubled neighbor to the south. Since the Texas Revolution, when a bunch of American illegal immigrants drove Mexico out of their northern province of Tejas, Mexico’s attention has been fixated on the Yankee Colossus to the north. The United States encouraged this fixation by annexing Tejas, provoking a war the Mexicans (and many foreign observers) figured they’d win easily, conquering Mexico’s northern provinces, thoroughly whipping all of Mexico’s armies, occupying their capital, and Tristing them. Finding themselves in control of Mexico, the All Mexico movement was only fought off by sectional divides over slavery and the fear of absorbing a large alien population of non-white Catholics. The Mexicans were brave but betrayed by inept leadership. America drew Washington and Jackson while Mexico drew Iturbide and Santa Anna. Bad draw. Mexico found her fate, summed up in a remark attributed, perhaps erroneously, to Porfirio Diaz:
Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.
But Mexico discovered that weakness can be strength. Along came Luis Echiverria Alvarez, the villain of our piece. Mexico, fueled by its natural resources, particularly its plentiful oil, was relatively economically stable until the oil shock of 1973. The wealth produced by the sudden rise in oil prices deranged the Mexican political system. Echeverria, president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976, went on a spending spree. Mexico’s economy boomed. Unfortunately, the price of oil collapsed and Mexico’s economy went into the toilet. Immigrants started to look north to the United States for jobs.
Many Mexican citizens started to cross the fairly open border illegally for work. This attracted the attention of America’s two competing parties, the plutocrats and the bureaucrats. The plutocrats saw cheap labor that would drive down American wages and weaken American workers. The bureaucrats saw new dependents to manufacture into an interest group and then into voters to be used against the plutocrats. Both parties realized that Mexico could manufacture and export new voters on demand. Hurrah!!! New voters on demand. New voters that were more grateful and less uppity than their existing constituents. Instead of bestowing patronage, they could become patrons.
Mexican elites discovered they had congruent interests with American elites. They could take their poorest citizens, a source of potential rebellion in past Mexican revolutions, and export them to America. This would get those immigrants off Mexico’s books and put them on America’s books. Mexico’s influence would grow with the Mexican population’s share of the American vote. Mexico could attempt a stealth reconquista of Mexico Irredenta, the lost northern provinces. Demographic warfare was so subtle that America’s over-educated and mulish elites would be too sophisticated to understand the threat. Mexico learned that it could put a gun to its head and threaten the United States with its own collapse. The resulting wave of immigrants headed north, which remained politically toxic to the existing American electorate no matter how popular it was with America’s elites, would politically inconvenience American elites. This threat, combined with an appeal to America’s hippie infested bureaucracies, gave Mexico remarkable leverage over the oafish Yankee Colossus.
This doesn’t need a conspiracy, even one orchestrated by the sinister Luis Echeverria, to take place. All you need is a Zeitgeist, transmitted through John Robb’s stigmergic communication, and a ready supply of useful idiots, a questionable resource that America shows no sign of running out of. The end result returns us to tehag’s original question: can you use containment on Mexico?
Mexico doesn’t stop at the Mexican border. Mexico is all around us. Mexico is down the street. Mexico is right next door. Mexico is at work. Mexico is at home. Mexico is part of the family. Mexico is so tightly wound into the fabric of American life that, if someone sneezes in Mexico City, Washington catches cold. Take the Mexicans you’ve worked with. You could lock them in the supply room and announce triumphantly that “Mexico is contained” but someone would probably hear their shouting and let them out. You could put a Mexican acquaintance in a headlock but eventually you or he would tire and by then it’s too late: an unforeseen complication has entered your relationship. Containing Mexico means containing your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, and even your family members.
What’s a down on its luck Yankee Colossus to do? The basic requirement of sovereignty is a monopoly of violence over your own territory. The United States has, for a variety of the usual contradictory reasons, chosen to ignore that requirement, letting large numbers of another country’s citizens flow unopposed over its borders, a country that, by the way, has a historic claim on a substantial chunk of U.S. territory. U.S. defensive policies have been weak and ineffectual. Mexico’s people have come north and the cultural shortcomings that have tyrannized the Mexican people for generations threaten to come north with them.
Mexico, showing more concern for its sovereignty than their northern neighbor, has launched a brave if thus far futile attempt to win control of its territory from large and powerful narco-traffickers. Large parts of Mexico are in disorder and large parts of Mexico threaten to descend into chaos. The Mexican Army has been brought in to take over from Mexico’s corrupt local and federal police. The well-armed and well-equipped narcotraficantes have counterattacked against the police and even the Mexican Army. The government is riddled with gang informants and corrupt officials. An already uninspiring government has pulled off the unique trick of becoming even more uninspiring.
In the long run, I believe the Mexican state will win. Colombia was in a similar pickle ten years ago but eventually found enough institutional resilience to fight back and win control of most of its territory. But the road back is long and, in the meantime, Mexico’s troubles will inevitably leak north, involving and corrupting American law enforcement even more than it already is, drawing entrepreneurs on both sides of the border to profit from America and Mexico’s shared misery, and applying negative pressures on Mexican residents in the United States to cooperate with the narcotraficantes. ¿O plata o plomo? (silver or lead?) the Colombian drug gangs used to ask their victims. Profit or death is a choice that will be put to many Mexican Americans in the years ahead, or as Mexico’s own Porfirio Diaz put it, ¿Pan o palo? (bread or a beating?). Illegal immigration, perhaps deliberately induced by Mexican drug gangs in an ironic echo of the strategy of Mexico’s own incumbent elites, will destabilize American local governments and drain their resources. Violence in Mexican communities in America will increase and inevitably spill over to non-Mexicans. Political correctness and diplomatic niceties will paralyze American responses.
The historical significance of the War in Iraq will be revealed: COIN on American streets. Containment, if it can be described as such, will occur house by house, block by block, city by city, state by state. The traditional American response to crisis, the inspired muddle, will produce more corruption of American institutions and society, already weakened by the last round of containment.
Even a more proactive strategy is not a panacea. You could carve a neutral zone out of northern Mexico but then you have given yourself the responsibility for policing the heart of the Mexican insurgency. You could lock down the country with another dose of “Homeland Security” but the result would be a further militarization of America’s civilian institutions. You could run another “All Mexico” play but then you’ve taken your existing problem with the 10% of Mexico’s population that live within your current borders and up the ante to 100% of Mexico’s population. You could drive a substantial number of illegal immigrants back into Mexico and militarize the border but that would be politically unpalatable. You could selectively intervene in northern Mexico but then you would be operating among those Mexicans who 1) don’t like Americans and 2) stayed in Mexico. You’re left with trying to prop up a floundering Mexican government with a touchy attitude and a historic grudge towards America, and indifferently patrolling your borders, both internal and external.
Maintaining a blockade of Mexico will be trying on an already badly frayed American society. Containment is a dispiriting and prolonged twilight struggle. The functionality of our society, such as it is, will be pitted against the dysfunctionality of Mexican society. I’m not sure who wins that faceoff. The depth of Mexican dysfunctionality is a formidable obstacle to victory. Even if we prevail, I’m not sure what the American society that survives the victory looks like. Whatever it is, it’s a long way from the society that Thomas Woodrow Wilson took to war in 1917. The Old Republic, with all of its virtues and all of its defects, is gone forever.
Poor America. So far from God and so close to Mexico.