In the early years of the last century, as our country was flexing its new-found muscle as a major industrial power, Latin America and the Caribbean served as a primary arena where presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson showcased our military might.
Now, many 2024 GOP presidential wannabes appear eager to resurrect what would be a far more dangerous version of the early 20th Century’s “gunboat diplomacy” toward Mexico.
This predisposition was displayed vividly during the first Republican primary debate on August 23rd, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared proudly that “on day one” he would send American troops into Mexico to strike suspected cartel-run fentanyl labs.
While it was DeSantis’ debate rhetoric that forced the question of U.S. military action against drug labs inside Mexico to the fore, the notion has been percolating on the back burner for several years.
During his presidency, Donald Trump apparently was so intrigued by the idea of striking facilities across our southern border, that in 2020 he reportedly requested that his then-Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, provide him a plan for launching “some Patriot missiles [to] take out the labs.”
Thankfully, such plans were never consummated, but there remain many in the GOP who today openly support such moves, up to and including bills for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against targets inside Mexico.
Not all of the GOP’s 2024 hopefuls are as hawkish as DeSantis, but most have placed themselves in the same proactive camp as the Floridian. Vivek Ramaswamy is on record declaring he would send in American troops not necessarily on day one, but certainly in his “first six months.” Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is only slightly more nuanced, stating that if the Mexican president fails to take down the fentanyl cartels, “we [will] do it.”
Such talk, while perhaps to be expected in a multi-candidate GOP primary, reflects a dangerous naivety on the part of those advocating that we take unilateral military action against our southern neighbor.
Aside from the clear violations of international law that such moves would precipitate, there are practical concerns as well; for one thing, Mexico happens to be our country’s largest trading partner – to the tune of some $263 billion in the first four months of this year alone.
The comparison that frequently accompanies Republican calls for unilateral military action against fentanyl labs in Mexico — that such facilities and those that direct them are “terrorists” akin to Osama bin Laden or Qasem Soleimani, both of whom were killed by U.S. military operations — is inapt. Islamic terrorists such as these were not engaged in producing a product that found ready buyers and users within the United States, which is the central problem in attempting to deal with today’s fentanyl crisis that kills 150 users every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The far more accurate comparison would be the policy pursued by the United States in Colombia during the 1990s and early 2000s to combat cocaine that was flooding U.S. markets, culminating in “Plan Colombia” launched officially in 1999. Debates still rage over the success of this multi-billion dollar policy, but an obvious difference between it and what Republicans now are proposing for Mexico, is that Plan Colombia was developed and executed with the full concurrence of the Colombian government.
Some of the Republicans pressing for unilateral military action against Mexico might have read longingly of the times early in the 20th Century when the United States sent troops under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing chasing Pancho Villa around the Mexico countryside in 1916-17; or in 1914 when American Naval and Marine forces briefly occupied the Mexican city of Veracruz. However, in both of these episodes, there were at least arguable actions by Mexico or Mexican-led forces that precipitated and justified U.S. military retaliation.
Far more important is the fact that we live in a much different and more complex world, especially as between the United States and Mexico, than 100 years ago. Shallow proposals about lobbing a few missiles into our southern neighbor or sending some Navy SEALS or Special Ops units to destroy what we believe are fentanyl labs, would have massive and negative repercussions on many levels.
Glib talk about unilateral military action against Mexico should be called out and denounced by individuals far more responsible than those mouthing such naïve proposals.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.