This Week at War: If Mexico Is at War, Does America Have to Win It?

What Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the drug war mean for U.S. strategy.


The insurgency next door

While answering a question on Mexico this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into, or making common cause with, what we would consider an insurgency." Mexico’s foreign minister Patricia Espinosa was quick to dispute this characterization, arguing that Mexico’s drug cartels have no political agenda. But as I have previously discussed, the cartels, evidenced by their attacks on both the government and the media, are gradually becoming political insurgents as a means of defending their turf.

I note that Clinton used the phrase "We [the United States] face an increasing threat …," not "they [Mexico]." The cartels are transnational shipping businesses, with consumers in the United States as their dominant market. The clashes over shipping routes and distribution power — which over the past four years have killed 28,000 and thoroughly corrupted Mexico’s police and judiciary — could just as well occur inside the United States. Indeed, growing anxiety that southern Arizona is in danger of becoming a "no-go zone" controlled by drug and human traffickers contributed to the passage of Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement statute earlier this year.

Both Clinton and Mexican officials have discussed Colombia’s struggle against extreme drug violence and corruption, revealing concerns about how dreadful the situation in Mexico might yet become and also as a model for how to recover from disaster. Colombia’s long climb from the abyss, aided by the U.S. government’s Plan Colombia assistance, should certainly give hope to Mexico’s counterinsurgents. But if the United States and Mexico are to achieve similar success, both will have to resolve political dilemmas that would prevent effective action. Clinton herself acknowledged as much when she remarked that Plan Colombia was "controversial … there were problems and there were mistakes. But it worked."

Isolating Mexico’s cartel insurgents from their enormous American revenue base — a crucial step in a counterinsurgency campaign — may require a much more severe border crackdown, an action that would be highly controversial in both the United States and Mexico. Plan Colombia was a success partly because of the long-term presence of U.S. Special Forces advisers, intelligence experts, and other military specialists inside Colombia, a presence which would not please most Mexicans. And Colombia’s long counterattack against its insurgents resulted in actions that boiled the blood of many human rights observers.

Most significantly, a strengthening Mexican insurgency would very likely affect America’s role in the rest of the world. An increasingly chaotic American side of the border, marked by bloody cartel wars, corrupted government and media, and a breakdown in security, would likely cause many in the United States to question the importance of military and foreign policy ventures elsewhere in the world.

Should the southern border become a U.S. president’s primary national security concern, nervous allies and opportunistic adversaries elsewhere in the world would no doubt adjust to a distracted and inward-looking America, with potentially disruptive arms races the result. Secretary Clinton has looked south and now sees an insurgency. Let’s hope that the United States can apply what it has recently learned about insurgencies to stop this one from getting out of control.

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