Republicans Want America to Invade Mexico. That’s a Terrible Idea.

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The United States’ generally friendly relations with its North American neighbors is one of its great geopolitical blessings. This fact seems so obvious, so intuitive, that to write an article arguing the point seems silly. “Bomb Mexico” should not be a policy proposal that merits any attention in these pages.

The United States’ generally friendly relations with its North American neighbors is one of its great geopolitical blessings. This fact seems so obvious, so intuitive, that to write an article arguing the point seems silly. “Bomb Mexico” should not be a policy proposal that merits any attention in these pages.

And yet here we are: There is a growing chorus of U.S. lawmakers, pundits, and presidential candidates proposing the United States use military force on Mexico’s sovereign territory, without Mexico’s permission if necessary, in order to combat drug cartels. In the early days of the 118th Congress, two Republican representatives introduced an Authorization for Use of Military Force bill to empower the military to conduct operations in Mexico against cartels. “We must start treating [the cartels] like ISIS,” explained one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dan Crenshaw. Sen. Lindsey Graham followed their lead, telling Fox News that he would “tell the Mexican government, if you don’t clean up your act, we’re going to clean it up for you.” And at the first two Republican presidential debates, multiple candidates embraced the idea of using military force on Mexican soil as well. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to use military force in Mexico on “day one” of his hypothetical presidency. Even the supposedly moderate Nikki Haley proposed delivering an ultimatum to Mexico’s president on the use of U.S. military force on Mexican soil while on the campaign trail: “You know what you tell the Mexican president? Either you do it, or we do it.”

These policy proposals are among the most counterproductive, harmful, and just plain dumb foreign-policy ideas ever entertained in the discourse of the nation that brought us strategic masterstrokes such as invading Iraq. The loud discussion of it in Republican circles is already introducing unnecessary friction in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, which involves daily cooperation on a number of issues, from water rights to counterterrorism to trade.

It is tempting to simply dismiss this idea as political grandstanding from a handful of also-ran Republican presidential candidates looking to juice their poll numbers. But an idea this recurrent can unfortunately not be dismissed. Donald Trump, a former (and potentially future) commander in chief, has fantasized about using military force against cartels on Mexican soil. The idea has seeped into countless items of popular culture, from the Sicario movies to a recent Call of Duty video game. Even some Democrats such as Pete Buttigieg, now a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, flirted with the idea of sending U.S. troops to Mexico during the 2020 presidential primary. While starting a war in Mexico is a very bad idea, it’s important not to simply dismiss it as impossible. The proposal to use U.S. military force in Mexico should be taken as the real threat to U.S. national security and diplomacy that it is.

To state the obvious: The principal reason that using U.S. military force in Mexico against criminal organizations is a very bad idea is that Mexico strongly opposes it. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is immensely popular in Mexico, in large part based on his political persona as a champion of Mexican sovereignty against U.S. interference. Much security and law enforcement cooperation already hangs by a thread. There is therefore no doubt that AMLO—or any other plausible Mexican leader in the foreseeable future—would refuse permission for U.S. military forces to operate on Mexican soil. And if U.S. forces operated in Mexico without the Mexican government’s permission, we could end up fighting not just cartels but the Mexican government. The consequences of such a disaster are hard to overemphasize.

We’ve actually seen this movie before. In the aftermath of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, the U.S. military crossed the border to hunt down Villa—without the permission of Mexico City. Despite the administration of Venustiano Carranza being as much an enemy of Villa as the U.S. government, defending Mexico’s sovereignty was still paramount. The punitive expedition led by Gen. John Pershing thus ended with a standoff and ultimately a pitched battle at Carrizal between the U.S. expeditionary force and the regular Mexican Army. According to legend, Villa laughed and watched from a hill as his two enemies fought. Undisputed is that the U.S. forces lost that battle—the last one fought between the U.S. and Mexican militaries—and retreated back across the border.

Mexico has never been the pushover many Republicans seem to think it will be. Even when the United States militarily defeated Mexico in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, Mexico imposed far greater costs on the U.S. military than expected. In terms of military deaths as a percentage of the total force, the Mexican war was the deadliest foreign conflict in U.S. history. Guerrilla activity continued to plague U.S. forces even after the fall of Mexico City. U.S. troops suffered significant casualties during the occupation, and many in Mexico preferred to fight on. The prospect of a sustained Mexican insurgency helped prompt the drafting of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was more favorable to Mexico’s interests than U.S. President James Polk wished.

As the more recent example of Ukraine shows, weaker nations can inflict real damage on the more powerful ones that invade them. No one in Washington should assume Mexico couldn’t give the United States a bloody nose. Even if the Mexican government and regular military stayed out of it, effectively giving the U.S. a free hand, we’d still be left with all the problems of counterinsurgency. In large parts of Mexico, local Mexican police and government forces can’t maintain order. It is unclear why this would lead anyone to expect the U.S. would be able to. It would be a Spanish-language remake of the Iraq and Afghan wars—with the fun twist that this time, the war would be next door.

The very proximity of Mexico means any sort of potential U.S. conflict would almost instantly create impacts on U.S. society at home. Targeted cartels would presumably fight back; some could begin to inflict the violence on American streets that they already cause in Mexico. Refugee flows of displaced Mexicans would presumably increase dramatically, worsening an already serious humanitarian crisis at the border. Increases in Mexican migration and the very real prospect of U.S. military casualties at Mexican hands would in turn fuel more xenophobic rhetoric, hatred, and even violence such as the 2019 El Paso attack. A U.S.-Mexico conflict would be disastrous for the Mexican American community, exposing America’s largest immigrant community to violence and discrimination. When the Mexican Revolution unleashed similar tensions, migration, and violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, it is believed that thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were killed through lynchings, massacres, and other extrajudicial violence in Texas along the border. This history could easily repeat itself if the U.S. militarily intervened in Mexico again.

As America has learned twice now in the 21st century, wars are a Pandora’s box: easy to open and hard to close. It is unclear how any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would end, but it would certainly make our already difficult and complicated world even harder to manage. Mexico is the United States’ most important relationship. Millions of American jobs depend on U.S.-Mexico trade. About one out of every 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Mexico. Every day, U.S. citizen children who live in Mexico cross the U.S.-Mexico border to go to school in the United States, including at the border pass in Columbus, New Mexico, the town that Villa once attacked. Meanwhile, millions of Americans travel to Mexico every year for medical care, vacation, or even cheaper gas from Mexico’s state-owned gas stations.

As we get deeper into a 21st century defined by complicated international challenges like pandemics and the climate crisis, as well as renewed great-power competition, the United States desperately needs Mexico to be on its side. Mexico is indispensable to the United States’ ability to near- and re-shore critical industries. Mexico is key to addressing shared challenges like migration and climate change. And any actually effective strategy for addressing the real challenges of fentanyl use and gang violence will require effective U.S.-Mexico cooperation.

The single most effective steps the U.S. can take to reduce the power of drug cartels in Mexico would be to cut off the flow of U.S. guns to Mexico and to address the epidemic of addiction on our own soil. The Mexican government is already suing U.S. gun manufacturers for their role in Mexico’s endemic violence. While the United States’ domestic politics around gun control remain hopelessly broken, passing legislation such as the ARMAS Act that would make smuggling U.S. guns into Mexico more difficult would go a long way to reducing cartel influence and improving the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship. Meanwhile, if the United States is serious about confronting deaths by fentanyl, it must address addiction as a public health crisis and improve the underlying decay in material conditions across the United States that drives so many of America’s deaths of despair.

America’s addiction to guns and fentanyl, and its consequences across the border, are complex problems that require domestic political reform. Of course, proponents of bombing Mexico to fight the cartels don’t actually intend to solve the problem of fentanyl overdoses at home or violence across the border. They won’t hold accountable greedy pharmaceuticals that got Americans hooked on opioids. They won’t guarantee struggling American communities access to affordable health care or decent union jobs that can restore a sense of purpose and community. And they certainly won’t crack down on the flow of U.S. arms south, nor create more legal pathways for Mexicans displaced by cartel violence to come north.

But just because they don’t seem interested in solving the problem doesn’t mean they aren’t serious. The twisted fantasy of charging into a neighboring country and killing brown people persists, drawing on a long history of anti-Mexican violence in the United States. It’s the frontier myth alive and well: Through fantasies of violent adventure abroad, we can delay a societal reckoning at home. Over and over again, we are confronted by the fact that our most pressing social problems can’t be solved by our military might. And over and over again, some in American society rush to find the next enemy upon whom we can redirect our social failings. Sober, serious strategists who understand the value of a positive relationship with Mexico cannot afford to ignore these delusions of imperial grandeur. The battlefields of Buena Vista, San Pasqual, and Carrizal should stand as reminders as to why.

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