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The New Republican Litmus Test Is Very Dangerous

David Frum Don't Bomb Mexico for The Atlantic June 2023
Thought Leader: David Frum
June 29, 2023
Source: The Atlantic
Written by: David Frum

Candidates who do not speculate about war with Mexico may be perceived as weak.

War with Mexico? It’s on the 2024 ballot, at least if you believe the campaign rhetoric of more and more Republican candidates.

In January, two Republican House members introduced a bill to authorize the use of military force inside Mexico. They were not know-nothings from the fringes of the MAGA caucus. One was Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a former Navy Seal who received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The other was Mike Waltz of Florida, a former Green Beret who served as the counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and was a successful entrepreneur before he entered Congress.

Military operations inside Mexico have been endorsed by Republican senators too. Last September, Tom Cotton of Arkansas published an op-ed that proposed:

We can also use special operators and elite tactical units in law enforcement to capture or kill kingpins, neutralize key lieutenants, and destroy the cartel’s super labs and organizational infrastructure. We must work closely with the Mexican government and ensure its continued support in this effort—but we cannot allow it to delay or hinder this necessary campaign.

At a committee hearing in March, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham also favored military operations: “America is under attack. Our nation is being attacked by foreign powers called drug cartels in Mexico.” He concluded: “They are at war with us. We need to be at war with them.” That was not a figure of speech. Along with fellow Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, Graham has repeatedly urged military operations against cartels backed by the “fury and might of the United States.”

Also in March, Rolling Stone reported that former President Donald Trump—who is once again the Republican presidential front-runner—has asked advisers for war plans and has speculated about deploying Special Operations teams into Mexico.

At a campaign event in Eagle Pass, Texas, Trump’s closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, proposed a selective naval blockade of Mexican ports.

“These precursors are sent into Mexico,” he said, referring to chemicals used in the production of fentanyl. “The cartels are creating the drug. And then they’re moving the drug into the United States of America. We’ll mobilize the Coast Guard and the Navy to interdict precursor chemicals.”

Sometimes the proponents of military operations inside Mexico add a caveat about cooperating with the Mexican government, as Cotton did in his op-ed and as DeSantis does in the written supplement to his naval blockade proposal.

But DeSantis did not mention the caveat in his spoken remarks yesterday, and the caveats get dropped when the idea is promoted on television and in social media. The Fox News star Greg Gutfeld argued on his program in December 2022 that it didn’t matter whether Mexico agreed or not:

It’s time to take out cartels in Mexico, bomb the bleep out of them. It’ll be over in minutes … And it doesn’t matter if Mexico won’t agree, when their cartels are free to invade us anyway. We didn’t ask Pakistan if we could drop in and kill bin Laden.

Probably very little of this talk is meant to be taken literally. Much of it functions as a rhetorical escape from the political dilemma that Republicans and conservatives face.

Synthetic opioids are inflicting death and suffering across the United States: 70,000-plus Americans died of overdose in 2021. The Republican brand is to sound tough, to promise decisive action. In the past, that impulse led Republicans to vow a war on drugs inside the United States: harsher penalties for users and dealers, more powers for police to search and seize. But this time, the users are Americans whom Republicans regard as their own. Five out of every eight victims of opioid overdose are non-Hispanic white people. Whereas historically, fatal overdoses have been an urban problem, synthetic opioids have been taking lives almost exactly equally between urban and rural areas. In deep-blue states such as California and New York, the death rates from synthetic opioids are even worse in rural areas than in the cities.

Republican lawmakers have little appetite for a domestic crackdown that would criminalize so many of their own constituents and their constituents’ relatives. At the retail level, many a “dealer” is also a user, a member of the community seeking to finance his or her own addiction by spreading addiction to others. Contemporary conservatism tells a fable about virtuous middle-Americans beset by alien villains. Apply that fable to the fentanyl crisis, and you arrive where Fox’s Gutfeld did at the conclusion of his December monologue: “So that’s my plan, bomb the supply, reduce harm among the demand by availing safer, clean alternatives.” Compassion for us. Violence for them.

But even if bomb-Mexico talk is intended only to shift blame—to redirect anger toward politically safer targets—the talk carries real-world political dangers.

The first danger of these calls for unilateral U.S. intervention is that it alienates opinion inside Mexico. Trump, DeSantis, Graham, and the others are speaking to Americans. But Mexicans can hear too. Are Americans dying because of Mexican drug sales? Mexicans are dying because of American drug purchases. Mexico has about one-third the population of the United States, but four times the homicide rate. Many, if not most, of those homicides are casualties of the battles for market share set in motion by American drug demand. Does Mexico do too little to halt the flow of opioids northward? The United States does nothing to halt the flow of guns southward.

Mexican resentment of U.S. hypocrisy has weakened Mexican leaders who want to strengthen the partnership with the United States—and empowered exploiters of anti-American sentiment, including the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. As American politicians shift from merely blaming Mexico to outright threatening Mexico, the resentment will only intensify.

The second danger is an even more sinister effect within Mexico: American threats of war upon Mexico will enhance the political power of criminals against the Mexican state.

Criminals have often benefited from nationalism in protecting and supporting their operations inside Mexico. One notorious example: In 1985, Mexican cartel criminals abducted, tortured, and murdered a Drug Enforcement Agency officer, Enrique Camarena. The crime boss Rafael Caro Quintero was identified by the United States as the “intellectual author” of the murder. He was immediately arrested, but never extradited. Caro Quintero was rearrested by Mexican marines in July 2022. But President Lopez Obrador took exception at his daily morning press conference to reports that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had located Caro Quintero, suggesting the Americans had overstepped. The Mexican courts meanwhile seemed to interpret U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s request for “immediate extradition” of Quintero as a potential infringement of the accused’s rights as a Mexican citizen. Nor unfortunately is this a unique case of Mexican officials using nationality as a justification to protect criminals from American justice. If Republican politicians revive ancient memories of past U.S. aggression against Mexico, it will make any such justifications more plausible and acceptable to Mexican opinion.

A third danger of the war talk is that Republican politicians are radicalizing their own voters. Three years ago, proposals to bomb Mexico would have sounded crazy. But if enough people repeat the talk—if it is debated, amplified, and validated by trusted commentators—the talk gains power. It becomes thinkable, sayable, and then ultimately doable. “Doable” is not the same as “done.” But an atmosphere is being created in which Republicans who do not speculate about war with Mexico may be perceived as weak.

DeSantis may imagine that his call for a naval blockade offers a moderate alternative to outright war. But he is still training Republican primary voters to expect a promise of some kind of military action against Mexico. It could be conducted beyond Mexican waters, farther from cameras that could record images of explosions or injured civilians. But think harder, and it’s actually an even more invasive idea than air strikes, because the blockade would need to continue for months, years, maybe forever.

The fourth danger is that the Republicans have ceased to consider even the most obvious risks. Despite Lindsey Graham’s vivid language, the Mexican criminal cartels are not in fact at war with the United States. They are doing business with the United States—a lethal business, but business all the same. As rational profit-maximizers, they take care to avoid direct confrontations with American power. In March, criminals abducted four Americans in Matamoros, Mexico, killing two. After the survivors were released, the local cartel issued a public letter of apology and surrendered five men whom it blamed for the abduction. “We have decided to turn over those who were directly involved and responsible in the events, who at all times acted under their own decision-making and lack of discipline,” the letter stated. Whatever was really going on in this murky story, clearly the cartel was worried about consequences for the murders.

But what if the U.S. begins bombing and rocketing cartel operations? Will the old restraints still apply? What would then deter the cartels from extending their violence across the border? “The enemy gets a vote,” goes an old warning. If the United States opts to escalate a law-enforcement challenge into a military conflict, it must prepare for its well-financed, well-armed antagonist to respond in kind. And unlike previous irregular antagonists, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, this is one that intimately understands and has deeply penetrated U.S. society.

The risks to the United States extend beyond U.S. and Mexican territory. Right now, the United States and its allies are assisting Ukraine against a Russian invasion. What happens to the consensus behind that effort if, 18 months from now, the United States has bombed, invaded, or blockaded its own neighbor? What if U.S. forces unintentionally inflict civilian casualties or destroy the property and livelihoods of nearby innocents? The U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and against Iraq in 2003 were joined by global coalitions and supported by United Nations resolutions. There will be no such international legitimation for a U.S. attack inside Mexico, or blockade of Mexico, without the consent of the Mexican government.

There have been occasions in the past when the threat of unilateral U.S. action has pressured Mexican authorities to step up to their responsibilities. But in those cases, the threat was delivered behind closed doors, such that the Mexican side could yield without public humiliation. Today’s threats are creating the opposite pressure—so much so as to raise the question, disturbing on both sides of the border, “Is public humiliation maybe the real point of this otherwise futile exercise?”

The toll of opioids upon American life and American homes is indeed horrific. The cooperation of the Mexican state has been unsatisfying, as López Obrador has proved an especially unreliable and double-sided partner. U.S. frustration with Mexico has a valid basis, and nobody should pretend that the Mexican government is innocent amid the fentanyl traffic. The point is that the American government should not act brutishly, stupidly, and self-defeatingly.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who advised President Nixon on domestic affairs, told the following story in The American Scholar about his attempts to curb drug abuse by squeezing supply. In the late ’60s, the drug of concern was heroin; an important source of supply was via the port of Marseilles in France—the fabled “French Connection.” Over many months, Moynihan negotiated agreements to stop the flow through Marseilles, mercifully without the threat of rockets or Special Forces operations.

I found myself in a helicopter flying up to Camp David to report on this seeming success. The only other passenger was George P. Shultz [then the secretary of labor ], who was busy with official-looking papers. Even so, I related our triumph. He looked up. “Good,” said he, and returned to his tables and charts. “No, really,” said I, “this is a big event.” My cabinet colleague looked up, restated his perfunctory, “Good,” and once more returned to his paperwork. Crestfallen, I pondered, then said, “I suppose you think that so long as there is a demand for drugs, there will continue to be a supply.” George Shultz, sometime professor of economics at the University of Chicago, looked up with an air of genuine interest. “You know,” he said, “there’s hope for you yet!”

Drug interdiction has not worked in Southeast Asia, in Afghanistan, in Andean South America. American demand and American wealth will summon supply from somewhere, and if one channel of commerce is stopped, another will open. The drug problem is located here, and the answer must be found here. Belligerent snarls and growls may excite American emotions, and they may win some American votes. But if those snarls and growls are acted upon, they will plunge the United States into troubles compared with which the fentanyl problem of today will seem the least of evils. Unfortunately, it’s too late to silence the threats. They have become the price of entry to Republican politics. But it’s not too late to challenge and rebut them—and to elect leaders who understand that Mexico will be either America’s partner or America’s disaster.

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