Shadow Government

Is Mexico heading south?

By Christian Brose

For too long, Mexico's intensifying war against narcogangs has gone largely unnoticed in U.S. debate. At last, that's changing. For starters, there was the Joint Forces Command report late last year warning that Mexico, like Pakistan, is in danger of near-term collapse. Barry McCaffrey weighed in with his now famous memo warning much the same thing. Alma Guillermoprieto offered a bleak picture in beautiful prose in the New Yorker. Even Newt Gingrich is jumping in, warning that Mexico is worse than Iraq and Afghanistan. Mary O'Grady raised a red flag yesterday in the Journal

This is all good, but by going from 0 to 60 as fast as we have, are we now in danger of painting the situation as more dire than it actually is? To be sure, a country that had more than 5,300 citizens killed in drug-related violence last year isn't in good shape. But from reading recent U.S. commentary and analysis, you'd think Mexico is the next failed state. This isn't sitting well with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, as the L.A. Times reported yesterday, and his government is pushing back against their country's depiction as Pakistan south of the border. (By the way, while most major newspapers have largely missed the Mexico story, the L.A. Times has totally owned coverage of it. Their series Mexico Under Siege is not to be missed.)

Now, of course the Mexican government is supposed to say that things aren't as bad as recent U.S. coverage would have us believe, but to some degree they have a point. I'm still horrified and alarmed about what's going on in Mexico, but here are a few reasons to keep our feet on the ground -- for now. 

1.The narcogangs still seem to be largely focused on fighting each other, not on bringing down the Mexican state. They have stepped up attacks on Mexican officials, police, and the army, but more out of necessity because Calderon has taken the war to them. As yet, there is no alliance unifying all of the narcogangs into one force that seeks to challenge and topple the Mexican state. Now, this could still happen, and even if it didn't Mexico could still be fatally compromised, but thus far the gangs are still mostly killing each other.

2. The gangs have no political agenda; their main goal remains selling dope. They are not providing basic services to Mexico's citizens, nor are they trying to create a parallel system of political order to rival the Mexican state and erode its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In fact, even if most Mexicans think the gangs are winning, they by all accounts still hate them and what they are doing to the country. In that sense, Mexico's gangs are not a true insurgency. There are signs -- literally, in this sense -- that the gangs are beginning to compete for the allegiances of the Mexican people and wage a strategic communications battle against Calderon. This is a troubling development. But for now, these campaigns are not focused on advancing rival forms of gang-led governance; their goal is simply to brand their cartel opponents as illegitimate in the eyes of the Mexican people.

3. Calderon's government is fighting for its life, but it hasn't lost (yet). In fact, there is still a chance that the worsening trend of the past few years actually reflects a problem getting worse before it gets better. Calderon may yet break the backs of the gangs, and the recent surge in violence may reflect the increasingly desperate actions of cartels that, for the first time in Mexican history, are now up against an adversary that is not content merely to look the other way, but is instead willing to do what is necessary to reclaim his country. Even if he succeeds, for his troubles, Calderon will likely spend the rest of his life after government in exile from his own country out of fear for his life.

The Merida Initiative will help Calderon, and thus far, President Obama -- rightly -- seems committed to carrying on the unprecedented security assistance to Mexico that President Bush and the last Congress began. This is good. Calderon was the first head of state Obama chose to meet, which is likely more than just the old visit-with-the-neighbors-first tradition. Obama would also be wise to recognize how the Mexican gangs are largely fighting their war with U.S.-bought weapons, a point well made in this FP column by Shannon O'Neil -- who, by the way, has a great Latin America blog.

I would be interested to know what the counterinsurgency community's read of Mexico is: Does it fit the model of an insurgency? And if so, should Calderon be mounting more of a COIN campaign, focusing on population security as opposed to the largely seek-and-destroy operations his army seems to be waging?

Shadow Government

Don't blame the State Department for its own starvation

By Kori Schake

Gary Schaub has an op-ed in today's New York Times on the disparity between State and Defense. Here's the heart of it:

Not surprisingly, the State Department has trouble pulling its weight — and the Defense Department fills the void....

General Petraeus oversees Central Command — America’s military presence in the Middle East — and has assembled a task force to develop a strategy for the area that stretches from Egypt to Pakistan. This task force will not develop a traditional military strategy with a focus on offensive and defensive operations. Centcom will aim to help nations in the region govern effectively, build their economies and provide security to their people. It will also try to communicate America’s foreign policy intentions clearly.

Regional commanders oversee policy in their regions because no one else can. They have staffs of thousands, forces numbering in the tens of thousands and vast financial resources. These generals tower over civilians who share responsibility for securing American interests abroad: ambassadors, regional desk officers and assistant secretaries of state.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognizes the imbalance and has called for increasing the State Department’s budget. But this is a long-term proposition. As he rebuilds his team in a new administration, Mr. Gates should see to it that every command has civilian officials to work alongside their military counterparts.

Building civilian posts into military headquarters will aggravate rather than solve the problem of the discrepancy between our military and diplomatic capacity. No civilian is ever going to be promoted to CENTCOM commander, and that tells you all you need to know about why Schaub’s proposed solution is inadequate. Civilians will provide diplomatic input to the military decisions, and that’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t be confused for developing an integrated politico-economic-military strategy or having the respective departments take responsibility for their slices and apportion resources to its execution.

CENTCOM’s strategy for U.S. relations with countries in its military area of responsibility deserves no more credence than a historian with expertise on Pakistan would deserve in crafting a military strategy. I mean no disrespect to General Petraeus and his team, just that it’s not their area of expertise, and it’s unfair of the U.S. government to thrust them into the work of setting priorities that are fundamentally political or diplomatic in nature.

What is needed is a wholesale rethinking of how we organize, train, and equip our diplomats and how we connect them to the President’s priorities. Does anyone really think we have enough diplomats for the people-intensive tasks of winning the war of ideas? How about advancing democracy? Strengthening civil society? Showing people in societies threatened by globalization the power of America’s creed of opportunity and self-reliance? There are more than 200 cities in the world with populations over a million people that have no U.S. diplomatic representation at all.

Beyond the baseline numbers, we don’t train our diplomats in anything except languages. In the course of a military career, a top officer spends about seven years being educated for the expanded responsibilities their subsequent jobs entail –- that’s in addition to the training for their current job that is part and parcel of their routine work. A comparably senior diplomat will have had less than a year. That our diplomats are as admirably capable as they are is a tribute to their individual excellence.

The State Department didn’t teach them to swim; they threw them in the water and promoted the ones who didn’t drown. Requiring virtuoso individuals to make the system work in an average way is a sub-optimal (and often disastrous) way to structure an institution. Bureaucracies are supposed to support and enable better performance, not inhibit it.
I've worked in both Defense and State, and the difference money makes on the culture just screams out at you. The State Department feels itself lucky to send people to the National War College –- they’ve been living on small budgets for such a long time they can’t even envision a world in which our country has a National Diplomatic University that teaches statecraft and our military pleads for admission to gain that essential education. State’s culture is one of doing the best you can with inadequate resources.

While Congress is frequently vilified for stinginess toward the State Department, they mostly meddle in foreign assistance accounts, not the baseline budget. The White House almost always gets the money requested in the President’s budget. The President should ask for money, and lots of it, to bring our non-military national security departments up to the standard our military performs at.

We need diplomats who are the peers of their military counterparts, not their subordinates.