Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

2009: The Year America Discovered Mexico

Why is bad news from south of the border suddenly dominating U.S. headlines? Two words: nativism and nostalgia.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico. ... Mexico? Really? Mexico! All of a sudden, it seems, Mexico popped up on the list of scary places that should keep you up at night. The escalating violence associated with the drug trade has been catapulting the United States' oft neglected neighbor past perennial hot spots in the ranking of foreign messes that people who worry about foreign messes must fret about. Americans can't turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or read a Pentagon paper about future worst-case scenarios threatening U.S. national security without being exposed to the war next door.

The more informed you are about Mexico, the more far-fetched talk of a failed state is, and yet there is no denying that the mayhem -- more than 6,000 dead in 2008 alone -- being fueled by Americans' appetite for illicit drugs is grim indeed. But is it so grim so as to merit being the only foreign-policy crisis raised at U.S. President Barack Obama's March 24 prime-time news conference? I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong. As a native of Mexico who's perennially frustrated by the lack of gringo focus on the U.S.-Mexico relationship, I am tempted to welcome the sudden surge of interest, regardless of its context. But that would be naive.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico. … Mexico? Really? Mexico! All of a sudden, it seems, Mexico popped up on the list of scary places that should keep you up at night. The escalating violence associated with the drug trade has been catapulting the United States’ oft neglected neighbor past perennial hot spots in the ranking of foreign messes that people who worry about foreign messes must fret about. Americans can’t turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or read a Pentagon paper about future worst-case scenarios threatening U.S. national security without being exposed to the war next door.

The more informed you are about Mexico, the more far-fetched talk of a failed state is, and yet there is no denying that the mayhem — more than 6,000 dead in 2008 alone — being fueled by Americans’ appetite for illicit drugs is grim indeed. But is it so grim so as to merit being the only foreign-policy crisis raised at U.S. President Barack Obama’s March 24 prime-time news conference? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong. As a native of Mexico who’s perennially frustrated by the lack of gringo focus on the U.S.-Mexico relationship, I am tempted to welcome the sudden surge of interest, regardless of its context. But that would be naive.

The sad truth is that Mexico is not in the news on its own merits. This is — like those summer stories of shark attacks or the serialized drama of a child’s kidnapping — a news story that’s mostly about Americans, and their momentary needs.

In the first instance, their need is to change the subject. Let’s face it — Americans have had it with the post-9/11 world. Enough with the suicidal jihadists and all their -stans a world away. Enough with the endless occupation of a Mesopotamia divided along sectarian lines. Enough with warring against terror, which sounds more like a means than an entity or a true ideology. Can you really get any satisfaction out of wrestling with a means, instead of a subject?

Mexico is so refreshingly 9/10. The fact that the bad guys there — and they are truly nasty — are not driven by religion or ideology, but are just in it for the money, is reassuringly retro. Still next door and still a mess, though not quite Pakistan, Mexico is a place Americans can always go back to, the way one goes back to basics, or the girl next door. Mexicans may not feel the same way about U.S. intentions, but ever since the James K. Polk administration a century and a half ago, whenever the United States preoccupies itself with Mexico, it takes a breather from more adventuresome empire-building. It was no accident that the pre-9/11 George W. Bush talked about adopting a more humble foreign policy almost in the same breath in which he talked about prioritizing the U.S. relationship with Mexico. The two would seem to go hand in hand.

Mexico is a fitting foreign-policy crisis for an overstretched superpower suffering recessionary times, eager to turn inward. This isn’t about wanting to extend a Pax Americana halfway around the world, but about domestic anxieties once Americans’ hubris has been depleted. U.S. jobs are disappearing along with Americans’ retirement savings, and now, well, the neighborhood is going to hell.

For all the hand-wringing about the possibility of a failed state along the United States’ 2,000-mile southern border, Mexico is a poor man’s crisis. The Merida Initiative, Washington’s effort to support the Mexican government in taking on the country’s drug cartels, amounts to a $1.4 billion over-three-years commitment, and the U.S. Congress has been balking at funding even that. While the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns had to be funded with massive supplemental appropriations, the resources allotted the Mexico problem could be covered with an earmark or two.

Most worrisome, much of the media’s focus on Mexico is being driven by a nativist backlash against all things foreign. Don’t be fooled: The war across the border as a story gaining market share in the United States’ cluttered marketplace for news and water-cooler preoccupations is the sequel of the wrenching immigration debates of 2006. TV commentator Lou Dobbs literally branded the broken borders banner as a convenient catchall to cover Mexico’s drug lords and emigrants, and the corrupt government which conspires — in the Dobbsian narrative — with both. In doing so, he is echoing talk-radio hosts across the United States. The Bush administration early on inadvertently encouraged those opposing comprehensive immigration reform to demonize the Mexican government because Bush initially treated immigration (unwisely) as a bilateral issue to be negotiated with his counterpart in Mexico City, Vicente Fox.

Ever since, vitriolic anti-immigration voices have been the Mexico-as-failed-state story’s most insistent publicists, who have figured out that there is tremendous upside for them in branding their broken border story as a pressing national security issue, and not just a cultural or economic problem.

What has been happening in Mexico since Felipe Caldern declared war on the powerful drug cartels upon assuming the Mexican presidency in December 2006 is of grave concern on its own terms. And it’s heartening that half of Obama’s cabinet members seem to have Mexico on their itineraries this spring and that the president himself heads there this month.

But I worry that this is merely another head fake in the relationship, because Americans are paying attention for the wrong reasons and will soon move on, while the dashing of expectations that this time Americans might pay attention to the relationship will cause lasting damage. Those Americans paying closest attention to Mexico are simply interested in closing the border, and the rest will be distracted by another crisis once they realize that this one is messy, but containable, and is largely Americans’ doing. It’s not as cathartic to clean up your own mess as it is to altruistically fix problems you didn’t create in the first place.

For all the talk of a porous border in the immigration context, what flows from north to south — vast drug profits and weaponry — is far more destabilizing to the security of both countries. How eager is Washington to police those flows? How eager is Washington to engage Mexican development in a sustained manner, along the lines with which the European Union addressed the development of its poorer members such as Ireland and Greece? How eager is Washington to resolve the paralyzing impasse over immigration reform?

Not very eager, I’m afraid. I am not expecting special envoys anytime soon or the kinds of resources devoted to the -stans. Mexico will muddle through this uptick in violence, and Americans will move on to something else, at least until the next time they feel compelled by other reasons to feign concern about their own neighborhood.

Andrés Martinez is director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation and was a Los Angeles Times editorial page editor.

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