Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t exactly famous for her restraint, but on March 15 she posted a tweet that was berserk even by her standards. The tweet showed a photograph of an onion-shaped ball of duct tape, which Greene claimed was an “explosive found by Border Patrol Agents.” This homemade bomb, Greene argued, justified a military response.
“Our US military needs to take action against the Mexican cartels,” she declared. One problem: According to Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz, the ball wasn’t an improvised explosive device. When you unwrapped the duct tape, what you got was a pile of sand.
Greene is hardly likely to let an embarrassing mistake like that stop her from beating the drums of war. Nor is she alone. Emboldened by their success in putting the Biden administration on the defensive about the alleged immigration crisis, Republicans have upped the ante. Going beyond Trumpian calls to “build the wall” to stop border crossings, the new rallying cry on the right is a call to unleash the American military against drug cartels south of the border—even if that means violating Mexican sovereignty.
On January 12, Representative Dan Crenshaw introduced a bill to “authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for trafficking fentanyl or a fentanyl-related substance into the United States or carrying out other related activities that cause regional destabilization in the Western Hemisphere.” On March 2, former US attorney general Bill Barr lent his support to Crenshaw’s bill in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. On March 7, GOP Senators Lindsey Graham and John Kennedy held a press conference putting forward the same idea. “If there were an ISIS or Al Qaeda cell in Mexico that lobbed a rocket into Texas,” Graham proclaimed, “we would wipe them off the planet. They [the Mexican drug cartels] are doing that times thousands, and our response is inadequate.”
These calls for military action make no sense. It’s true that drug cartels are a destabilizing force on both sides of the US-Mexico border. But an American military attack done in defiance of the Mexican government would only contribute to further destabilization. It’s no more likely to be successful than the American invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan—and could easily produce a failed state. Ultimately, the fentanyl crisis is a demand problem driven by American consumers.
Yet the shrill war cries of the hard right have been echoed in more modulated tones by centrist publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic, which questioned the legitimacy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government. These more mainstream voices, which also include Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, focused not on drug cartels but on an electoral reform bill that AMLO is pushing. According to David Frum, writing in The Atlantic, “liberal democracy in Mexico is under assault.” Given Frum’s famous contribution as George W. Bush’s speechwriter to the use of pro-democracy rhetoric to justify invading other countries, his intervention is suspect. At the very least, Frum’s thinking suggests the worrying possibility of an alliance between über-reactionaries like Greene and the more polished establishment voices of the foreign policy elite in a shared project of regime change in Mexico.
As the journalist José Luis Granados Ceja noted in The Nation recently, the reforms of the National Electoral Institute that AMLO’s government is pushing through are quite modest, consisting of “the reduction of spending through personnel cuts and some reorganization,” and they in no way “undermine elections in the country.”
The simple truth is that AMLO enjoys mass support in his country as a populist president. Since he took office in December 2018, his approval rating has rarely sunk below 60 percent, a statistic that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden must surely envy. He’s earned popular support with policies like raising the minimum wage and nationalizing lithium stores. On the international stage, AMLO has a habit of thumbing his nose at US policy, whether it concerns the Russia-Ukraine War or the War on Drugs.
Ironically, Republican calls for an invasion of Mexico are likely to buoy AMLO’s popularity even more. Mexicans well remember the long history of gringo attacks on their sovereignty, going back to the wars of the 19th century that cost the country Texas and California, and continuing through Woodrow Wilson’s pursuit of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and Donald Trump’s bluster about making Mexico pay for a border wall. Trump also threatened to designate the drug cartels as terrorist organizations, although he never acted on it, to the disappointment of his hard-right supporters. AMLO has shrewdly played up the rhetoric of US hotheads like Dan Crenshaw—a strategy designed to rally Mexican nationalism.
It is AMLO’s political success, rather than his troubles controlling the drug cartels, that is surely the main cause of the new calls for attacking Mexico. AMLO’s populism provokes precisely because many Americans think Mexico is too valuable to be left to the Mexicans. In addition to the traditional Yankee indifference to Mexican sovereignty, the desire to exploit Mexico’s resources is also in play. Brandon Darby, a right-wing activist who has worked with Steve Bannon, offered a clue in a 2019 podcast episode: “The reality of Mexico is this: They’re very resource-rich.” Darby added that if the United States targeted the cartels, it could create a situation in which Mexico will “fall in line in other places so that businesses are more able to invest in Mexico and invest in resource exploitation.”
If the United States does invade Mexico in the coming years, it will doubtless do so on the pretext of defending democracy and trying to defeat the drug cartels. But behind this rhetoric lies the desire of a weakened superpower to reassert its hegemony and retain control of resource extraction.