Mexico or Mali?

I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.

Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention?   To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.

It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.

First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening. 

A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.

Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.

Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.

Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.

All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?

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Stephen M. Walt

Droning on...

There was a terrific NOVA program on the tube last night, on the subject of remotely-piloted vehicles (aka "drones") and their rapidly expanding role in the American military. The show focused mostly on the technical aspects of these weapons, but didn't omit some of the tricky ethical and political questions associated with their use. FP's Rosa Brooks argues that the advent of drones is a recipe for perpetual war; I'm inclined to agree, at least as long as the United States can continue to use them with impunity.

I took three lessons away from last night's program. First, a reminder: for all the alleged successes of our expanded drone program (i.e., degrading al Qaeda in various locales, providing battlefield intel in Afghanistan, etc.) in the end the United States failed to achieve its core objectives in either war. Iraq did not become a stable, pro-American democracy (it remains violent and if anything tilts toward Iran).  Nor did we defeat the Taliban and create a stable democracy in Afghanistan (whose fate will be determined after we leave in 2014). And this reminds us that technological wizardry does not always translate into strategic success.

Second, one of the interesting puzzles of the so-called drone wars is why so few remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) get shot down. Most RPVs are slow and don't fly that high, which would makes them vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Even the most elusive drones would be invulnerable to fighter aircraft or advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Serbia reportedly shot down some fifteen U.S. drones in the Kosovo War, and Iran may -- repeat, may -- have forced one down over its territory last year.

There are two obvious reasons why we don't lose more drones. One is that some governments (e.g., Pakistan) that object to their use are protesting too much: they are not so angered by drone strikes that they are willing to start shooting them down. Another is the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda don't have access to sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, and nobody is going to provide it to them. Even states like Russia and China aren't overly fond of non-state terrorist organizations, which makes it much harder for the groups that we are targeting with drones to acquire counter-measures that might equalize the situation. But note: this situation also means that the relatively passive environment that we've been exploitng in places like Yemen or Pakistan may not be the norm, and things might be quite different if we went up against a foe that had better anti-aircraft capabilities and was willing to use them.

Third, I couldn't help but consider what the RPV revolution tells us about the future of the manned space program. Homo sapiens has many interesting and attractive qualities, but we also have real physical limitations and keeping us alive in demanding environments like space is very hard and expensive. Sending machines to explore space makes a lot more sense than sending human beings; we will learn more at far less cost if we abandon our romantic notions of "space exploration" by humans and send sophisticated machines instead.

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