Mexico: Failure or Opportunity?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in a Hudson Institute/RedState sponsored “New Media Forum” with John Walters, who served as President Bush’s “drug czar” from 2001-09.  As we all know, the escalating drug war in Mexico threatens to violently destabilize the nation and so create a serious problem for the neighboring United States.  The crisis appears intractable–indeed there are some in the US who have speculated that Mexico is on the brink of being a “failed state.”  The Obama administration response appears to be one of manning the ramparts rather than attempting to find a solution.  You might expect Mr. Walters to consequently offer a grim prognosis.  The surprising thing is that he did no such thing–he sounded a note of optimism and described the current situation in Mexico as an opportunity for, rather than a threat to, the United States.
Our discussion was wide-ranging, and included topics such as the potential involvement of foreign governments in supplying or training the drug gangs that threaten to overrun Mexico (Mr. Walters thinks this is possibly a factor in the violence but was cautious about pointing fingers) to the legalization of drugs, which he opposes.  Mr. Walters also discussed the much celebrated but generally misunderstood Plan Colombia, which, he argued, has succeeded largely because of the courageous and decisive action of President Uribe and the aggressive strengthening of the Colombian internal security forces.

While these are all interesting topics, for me the eye opener of the call was Mr. Walters’ optimism about the current situation in Mexico.  As he pointed out, the United States has a rare partner in Felipe Calderon who is looking to the US rather than to other regional powers to partner with him in battling rampant gang violence.

Mr. Calderon came to office in a squeaker of an election in 2006, but his narrow margin of victory has not led him to govern in a timid, conciliatory fashion.  He has confronted the drug gangs and the violence we see today is their push back against his aggressive policies.  Mr. Walters sees in President Calderon the kind of ally we found in Mr. Uribe–and so a potential partner in resolving the current crisis and moving forward with a mutually productive alliance that will contribute to the security and prosperity of both nations.

Mr. Walters also discussed some of the ways the US could assist Mexico short of flooding the country with American troops.  For example, the US can assist with the prosecution of extradited drug criminals, thus removing bad actors and reducing the strain on the weak and frequently-compromised Mexican judicial system.  As Mr. Walters discussed, the willingness of the Calderon administration to cede this responsibility to the United States and to freely share information indicates Mexico’s interest in strengthening ties with the US.

Critics might point out that the United States has not had much success in finding serious partners in previous Mexican presidents.  It is true that there were high hopes for the relationship between former Presidents George Bush and Vincente Fox that were not realized.  The charismatic and handsome Mr. Fox, who might have played the President of Mexico on TV if he did not actually hold the office, did provide some assistance to the US but he never emerged as the sort of partner that is needed to combat the violence that is spilling onto both sides of the US-Mexican border.  Mr. Calderon appears to be made of sterner stuff.  He resents the implication that his nation is failed, or “ungovernable,” and asks the US to work with him to solve the problem rather than to offer handouts or put up a wall between the two countries.

So what is the new American President to do?  After all, this is an administration that has vowed never to let a serious crisis go to waste, and it seems that in the Mexican crisis there is a rare opportunity to make substantial progress for US interests in Latin America.  Unfortunately the opportunity may be slipping through our fingers.  Today we have the disturbing news that the Obama administration is continuing a pattern of protectionism by restricting trade with Mexico–a move that is in violation of NAFTA and which will have unfortunate consequences for Mr. Calderon, who needs both the economic support provided by free trade with the US and to bolster the image of US-Mexican cooperation so that his citizens will support his pro-US policies.  Mexico has responded by slapping tariffs on 90 US imports.

While the Obama administration says it is taking a strong stand in support of Mr. Calderon, its early actions appear to be ones that undermine, rather than strengthen, this critical relationship.  Hopefully Secretary Clinton’s timely visit to the region later this month will reverse the disintegrating trend of US-Mexican relations.  Mr. Walters pointed out that President Calderon has only one six-year term in office, and there are no guarantees that his successor will offer a similar opportunity.  The clock, as he said, is ticking.