WASHINGTON, DC – Flanked by the embattled President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon and the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, a weary looking President Barack Obama used a press conference to angrily denounce as “Alarmist and inflammatory” a recent report issued by the conservative Heritage Foundation that declared the massive chain of UN administered Mexican Refugee camps in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as “a bottomless well for narco-insurgency” and “a threat to the territorial integrity of the United States”. The camps, home to at least 2.5 million Mexican nationals, are dominated by the “Zetas Confederales”, a loose and ultraviolent umbrella militia aligned with the feuding Mexican drug cartels that now control upwards of 80 % of Mexico.
President Obama’s political fortunes have been reeling recently in the wake of high profile incidents that include the kidnapping of his Special Envoy for Transborder Issues, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and the car bombing assassination of popular California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that killed 353 people in Sacramento last month. Both events have been tied directly to factions of Zetas “hardliners” who operate with impunity on both sides of the US-Mexican border. President Obama used the conference to point to the “clear and hold” COIN strategy that has recently restored order and even a degree of tourism to Las Vegas, once the scene of bloody street battles between Zetas, local street gangs and right-wing American paramilitary groups, as a sign of the success for his administration. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill remain skeptical and say that it is likely that President Obama will face a primary challenge next year from Senator Jim Webb (D- Va), a former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, who called the president’s COIN strategy “The right course of action” but ” Two years too late”….
That fictional scenario above is offered as a thought experiment.
Thursday, in a statement that was issued in part for public diplomacy purposes, DNI Adm. Dennis Blair, dismissed any strategic implications regarding the strength of Mexico’s drug cartels that the Mexican government is struggling to suppress:
Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. [Let me] repeat that. Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The violence we see now is the result of Mexico taking action against the drug cartels. So it is in fact the result of positive moves, which the Mexican government has taken to break the baneful influence that many of these cartels have had on many aspects of Mexican government and Mexican life.
While it might be tempting to ask what the good Admiral is smoking, Blair is neither a naif nor a fool but a very experienced and saavy intelligence manager who is engaged in pushing a political line of the Obama administration, in deference to the wishes of the government of Mexico. The line is being peddled on many fronts; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has just declined offers for increased appropriations for improving border security in favor of “surging” Federal agents on a temporary basis (i.e. a political show that will accomplish nothing). Here is SECSTATE Hillary Clinton on the same subject on the same day as Adm. Blair while on an official visit to Mexico:
On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton noted that no official of the Obama administration had ever used the phrase “failed state.” She said Mexico faced a “public safety challenge,” likening it to the surge of drug violence in American cities in the 1980s. And she lavished praise on the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, for taking strong measures against the drug cartels.
This line that Mexico is fundamentally sound, while helpful to President Calderon’s political standing when expressed in public, is analytically speaking, sheer nonsense, and if enforced in private, counterproductive to having sober USG interagency planning sessions to make certain that worst case scenarios, like the one imagined above, never come close to materializing. Such politicized groupthink also interferes with effective cooperation with Mexico to address a 4GW type problem that has already mestastasized to a dangerous degree into American territory. Earlier, while still free of Mexican diplomatic and political pressure, the U.S. military accurately assessed the potential threat of Mexico devolving into a failed state in this JFCOM planning document (we won’t be seeing anything like this in public again, barring leaks):
In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.
….The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.
Banning terminology like “failed state” or admission of adverse data points from Mexico or the Southwestern U.S. (!) into an integrated analytical picture because the self-absorbed and greedy oligarchy that rules Mexico heatedly objects, is a recipe for policy failure and “snowballing” interrelated problems as each new development is inadequately addressed for political reasons. This new eggshell to tread carefully upon is going to be added to our longstanding, politically determined, refusal to contemplate our own drug policy honestly in light of it’s effect on our national security interests (We are turbocharging guerillas, Islamist insurgents, terrorists and criminal networks all over the globe with billions of American narco-dollars and corrupting and demoralizing our own allies in the process).
If the current situation in Mexico existed anywhere else in the world, our national security elite would already be discussing the potential for a mass exodus of refugees at given levels of escalating violence. The United States government conceives of the border in terms of an economic immigration problem not as a political mass-migration problem; such an event, spilling over into the hot deserts of the American border states, would very likely overwhelm the capacity for adequate humanitarian response. A Katrina moment in the cacti.
Recall the difficulties the Cater administration had with the relatively minor refugee influx in 1980 known as the Mariel Boatlift when 120,000 Cubans were permitted by Fidel Castro to flee the Communist paradise for life in the United States, along with imprisoned criminals and mental patients whom Castro deported along with the boatlift. A full blown civil war in Mexico could generate 20 to 30 times that number of refugees, among whom narco-guerillas or terrorists or independent bad actors could operate freely, much as refugee camps elsewhere in the world have been breeding grounds for militias, criminal organizations and terrorists.
SECSTATE Clinton, at least, should know all of this very well. The handling of the Marielitos issue by Jimmy Carter probably cost her husband the governorship in Arkansas and led him later as President to enforce a very tough line against Haitian refugees, fearing a deluge of desperately poor Haitians fleeing dictatorship and internecine political violence. It would be far better to prioritize Mexico as a national security issue today, than let it evolve into a transnational powder keg tomorrow. There are, I must observe, far more Mexicans than Haitians in this hemisphere.
But proper resonse requires empirical investigation and analytical clarity, followed by sensible and determined policy designed to short-circuit negative trends, not empty political assertions designed to tread water, obfuscate and delay action. We have time, but not unlimited time.