Gateway Interventions

Drones along the Mexican border, commandos in Central America -- the war on drugs looks more than ever like a real war. But do Americans have any idea what they're getting into?

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

The secret is out: America’s war on drugs is now more like a real war than ever before. This week, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s paramilitary capabilities include "five commando-style squads," mixing law enforcement and armed conflict across Latin America.

It’s an operation that hasn’t spread to Mexico — yet. But as the expense of the status quo in that country mounts, with no end in sight to what over the past five years has become the world’s most disastrous narco-conflict, U.S. policymakers are feeling growing pressure to take the fight south of the border. Mexico’s pivotal position in the drug trade has grown so vexing — despite unprecedented international cooperation — that national political figures in the United States are pushing publicly to make Mexico the next step in indulging the military temptation.

The paramount concern is that Mexico will become a magnet for America’s enemies abroad. In October, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that Iranian operatives — one a U.S. citizen — had plotted to work with a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by bombing a Washington restaurant. Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of Congress’s Homeland Security Oversight, Investigations, and Management Subcommittee, urged in response that "every tool available" must be used "to stop the advancement of Mexican drug cartels inside the U.S."

What, specifically, does that mean? Fresh light has been shed by eye-opening developments elsewhere in politics. As Paul McLeary of Defense Technology International reported in October, Republican Rep. Connie Mack of Florida used an Oct. 4 hearing on the Merida Initiative — the security agreement between the United States, Mexico, and other Latin American countries on combating the drug trade — to promote an "ink spot" counterinsurgency campaign in Mexico. On the presidential campaign trail, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had previously called for deploying drone aircraft to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, opined on Oct. 1, "It may require our military in Mexico working in concert" with Mexican troops "to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border and to destroy their networks." U.S. defense secretary and former CIA chief Leon Panetta recently announced that President Barack Obama has nominated Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV to be commanding general of U.S. Army North, headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Caldwell’s current assignment? Combined Security Transition Command, Afghanistan.

Remarks and actions like these — by key members of both parties — suggest that the encroachment of military rhetoric and thinking on the situation across the border is the inevitable logical consequence of the costly and manifestly unsuccessful drug policy the United States has pursued for decades. In declaring the war on drugs in 1971, President Richard Nixon advertised the policy as a "total war" on "public enemy number one." Instead, the war on drugs has settled — along with the drug trade it seeks to combat — into something that far exceeds the ambit of mere law enforcement, yet falls far short of necessitating the mobilization, intensity, and mission clarity found in a proper war. It has long blurred the distinction between police action and armed conflict. The same drones patrolling the Pakistani frontier cruise the Mexican border. Domestic SWAT teams now frequently conduct no-knock raids in American hometowns reminiscent of U.S. tactics during the worst days of the Iraq war.

Psychologically and politically, Americans are particularly uncomfortable with current anti-drug operations. This month, for the first time, half of those polled by Gallup favored the legalization of marijuana. Videos of brutal and misbegotten SWAT raids — such as last year’s now-infamous raid in Columbia, Missouri — rack up millions of views on YouTube and amplify outrage across the Internet. Americans perceive significant variances in the threat to public health and public order — if any — posed by marijuana, methamphetamines, and other prohibited substances. Recognition is increasing that the U.S. demand for drugs, which none less than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called "insatiable," is to blame in significant part for the volume and profitability of the international drug trade.

What’s more, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the popularity of open-ended uses of force that commingle the roles of warrior and constable has proved persistently difficult to maintain. Nor is the blurring effect caused by the present war on drugs restricted to the boundary between what cops do and what troops do. The federal government is also smudging away the line between what is domestic and what is foreign — including longstanding popular notions of what kinds of state violence are permitted and accepted against U.S. citizens and inside U.S. borders: Consider the debate surrounding September’s drone killing of American-born militants like Anwar al-Awlaki, and October’s effort by the attorneys of Jose Padilla to reinstate his lawsuit against government officials for alleged torture during his years in detention as an enemy combatant.

This is not just a matter of citizen sensibilities being shaken up in the still-new era of homeland security. The whole premise of American grand strategy is in question. Since World War II, the animating purpose of U.S. military activity, from basing to deployment to battle, has been to ensure that conflicts with America’s enemies will be conducted there, not here. Although the militarization of the drug war presumes to shift the theater of conflict away from the United States and into the "backyard" of cartels and producers, the march of the front lines from Afghanistan and Colombia to America’s own backyard underscores how shaky a premise that has turned out to be.

National politicians’ and policymakers’ embrace of the prospect of war across the border would signal an abandonment of America’s grand-strategic tradition, with sweeping implications not just for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, but for the way the balance of security and freedom are conceptualized and presented to the American people. As of yet, there are contradictory indications of how a revised presentation would be received. When it comes to the cost, sustainability, and wisdom of the so-called national security state, Americans seem at once more skeptical and more resigned than ever. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, captured the ambivalent mood in September when he said, "I think we start to relinquish those powers when we are less afraid, when the threat becomes less than it may still be … It’s a very difficult question because people want to be safe."

Whether or not a shooting war in Mexico will make them feel safer, American voters are not the only decision-makers capable of preventing a more militarized drug war before it starts. Mexican citizens are likely to recoil dramatically against U.S. intervention in their own homeland.

Even more importantly, as Patrick Corcoran has suggested in Small Wars Journal, Mexicans would oppose U.S. military intervention for some of the same reasons that Americans should oppose such a mission: Mexican gangs and cartels are not fighting an insurgency against the government of Mexico; the consent of the Mexican people is insecure; trans-border flows of illicit substances and dirty money are demonstrably difficult to stanch even with military involvement; and much of what counterinsurgency-style operations can do, in terms of boosting intelligence and informational awareness, may also be accomplished through better, more comprehensive police work.

Unfortunately, the appeal of the military option has its roots in some durable imperatives shaped by the post-9/11 and post-economic-crisis landscape. Political figures and their constituents have long been driven by the desire to do something in the face of a difficult problem. America’s current and much-lamented atmosphere of institutional paralysis and dysfunction amplifies the concern. The Obama administration’s drone-heavy, special operations-driven approach to fighting terrorism lends credence to the judgment that commando strikes and undeclared wars are a relatively cheap and effective way to experience the satisfaction of immediate action.

Strict law enforcement and full-on war are the two clear logical alternatives that the disadvantages of the current hybrid policy push the United States to adopt. The assumption behind the embrace of the military option is plain enough: Mere policing, however rigorous, won’t solve the problem. In an interview with the New York Times last month, Mexican President Felipe Calderón warned that "many in the PRI" — the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, whose landslide victory this year in a key state-level election augurs its return to the presidency in July 2012 after more than a decade in the national politics wilderness — believe that cutting a deal with the cartels will provide a path out of the drug war for Mexico.

Lest Americans think Calderón is marrying electioneering to scaremongering, former president Vicente Fox — Mexico’s first from outside the PRI in 71 years — insisted there may be no alternative but to negotiate with the bosses. Perhaps this stark reminder of the limits of U.S. drug policy, at war or otherwise, will tempt American citizens and elites alike to consider legalizing at least some drugs — lest the United States find itself at war with Mexico’s cartels and the government that legalized them.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola