Clinton’s bluntness on Mexico was right

In her well-received remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip a statement that immediately sent the inter-American affairs semantic fashion police scurrying. She referred to the on-going threat posed by Mexican drug cartels and their allies to Mexican society as an "insurgency." This comment was immediately disputed ...

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

In her well-received remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip a statement that immediately sent the inter-American affairs semantic fashion police scurrying. She referred to the on-going threat posed by Mexican drug cartels and their allies to Mexican society as an "insurgency."

This comment was immediately disputed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration, which argued that they were not becoming another Colombia and that they were doing what was necessary to keep its political system from being co-opted, corrupted and battered into ineffectiveness or worse. It also made some in the State Department and in the -- very conventionally-minded and cautious -- U.S. Latin American policy community squirm.

All those reactions are reasons why Clinton's remarks are exactly on target. It is hard for Mexico to make the case that it has its arms around the problem, when news of its third mayor to be killed in the past several weeks is breaking. It is hard when, as quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times story on the subject, one senior U.S. immigration and customs official cites the fact that the Mexicans have "lost an ‘astronomical' number of police officers and soldiers." In short, it is hard for them to argue that everything is under control when it is clearly not.

In her well-received remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip a statement that immediately sent the inter-American affairs semantic fashion police scurrying. She referred to the on-going threat posed by Mexican drug cartels and their allies to Mexican society as an "insurgency."

This comment was immediately disputed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s administration, which argued that they were not becoming another Colombia and that they were doing what was necessary to keep its political system from being co-opted, corrupted and battered into ineffectiveness or worse. It also made some in the State Department and in the — very conventionally-minded and cautious — U.S. Latin American policy community squirm.

All those reactions are reasons why Clinton’s remarks are exactly on target. It is hard for Mexico to make the case that it has its arms around the problem, when news of its third mayor to be killed in the past several weeks is breaking. It is hard when, as quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times story on the subject, one senior U.S. immigration and customs official cites the fact that the Mexicans have "lost an ‘astronomical’ number of police officers and soldiers." In short, it is hard for them to argue that everything is under control when it is clearly not.

Sometimes diplomacy is the art of varnishing unpleasant truths. But sometimes it is the art of stripping away the varnish. In this case it is the latter, because while the Calderon administration has struggled valiantly with this issue, they are losing ground — and the worse things get, the more they go from being primarily a Mexican problem to being a North American problem. President Calderon may not like it, but this is already a political issue in the U.S. Simply shifting troops to our southern border will not be enough if pockets of Mexico become even more lawless, and in turn even more dangerous staging grounds for threats to the U.S.

Whether the crises in Mexican provinces — locked in struggles with brutal gangs of drug dealers — technically fulfills the definition of an insurgency is immaterial. In fact, Clinton’s language was actually quite nuanced: "We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, a drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency."

Sometimes just a word can be a wake-up call. In this case, if it is not one for the Mexicans — whether for reasons of pride or denial — it must be for the Obama team, who have from the beginning recognized that instability in Mexico — for whatever reason — is among the most serious, complex, and difficult to tackle threats the U.S. faces today.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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