The 8 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination featured in the August 23 televised debate feuded on several issues, including U.S. aid to Ukraine and the future role of former president Donald Trump. There was no meaningful discord on one issue, however. All 8 participants agreed that the flow of illegal drugs out of Mexico, especially fentanyl, poses an alarming threat not only to public health in the United States but to America’s security. They then vied to take the most hardline positions possible. Their favorite policy panacea was to advocate sending U.S. Special Forces into Mexico to eradicate the powerful drug cartels.
It was not a new stance for the current crop of leading Republicans. Indeed, most of the presidential aspirants had staked out that position weeks or months earlier. Nikki Haley, who is reliably belligerent on nearly every foreign policy issue, stated during a March 2023 speech to the American Enterprise Institute: “When it comes to the cartels, the Mexican president said yesterday we don’t want the U.S. to do anything. Well, you know what? You tell the Mexican president, either you do it or we do it. But we are not going to let all of this lawlessness continue to happen.”
Both the advocacy of a militarized strategy against the cartels and the display of utter contempt for the wishes of Mexico’s government or the Mexican people now typifies the GOP’s perspective. When asked during the debate if he would order Special Forces to confront the cartels, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis replied “Yes, and I will do it on day one.” On another occasion, he stated that he also would be open to ordering drone strikes on cartel targets inside Mexico.
Of the candidates on the debate stage, only former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson dissented from the idea that the U.S. military should barge into Mexico. And his objection was only to the unilateral use of force. Instead, he favored exerting concerted economic pressure to compel cooperation from the Mexican government.
GOP enthusiasm for the military option has been building for years. In his memoirs, President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense, Mike Esper, recalled that his boss asked him at least twice in 2020 about the feasibility of launching missiles into Mexico to “destroy the drug labs” and wipe out the cartels. The president considered such a drastic step to be justified because Mexican leaders were “not in charge of their own country.”
Not surprisingly, Trump quickly joined the current lobbying campaign to attack the cartels. He has explicitly embraced the proliferation of congressional proposals for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Rolling Stone reported that Trump also “has been asking policy advisers for a range of military options aimed at taking on Mexican drug cartels, including strikes that are not sanctioned by Mexico’s government.” Since polls show that Trump remains the leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, his aggressive stance is no small matter.
The latest phase of the campaign for military intervention received a major boost with an op-ed in the March 2, 2023, Wall Street Journal by former Attorney General William Barr. His article epitomized both the logic and the emotion among advocates of a confrontational approach. “America can no longer tolerate narco-terrorist cartels,” Barr argued. “Operating from havens in Mexico, their production of deadly drugs on an industrial scale is flooding our country with this poison. The time is long past to deal with this outrage decisively.” The danger that the trafficking organizations pose to the United States, Barr insisted, requires treating them as “national-security threats, not a law-enforcement matter.” According to Barr, such “narco-terrorist groups are more like ISIS than like the American mafia
He later confirmed that he wanted to use “special ops units” for missions in Mexico, and he voiced the same disdain for Mexico’s sovereignty that Haley later expressed. “It would be good to have the Mexicans’ cooperation,” Barr conceded, but “I think that will only come when the Mexicans know that we’re willing to do it with or without their cooperation.”
The GOP’s growing enthusiasm for using military force against the drug cartels threatens to poison relations with our southern neighbor. A high-level Mexican official warns that “Any military intervention in Mexico would be a monumental setback for the U.S. and would derail the bilateral relationship. It can destroy the North American trading bloc and worsen the security situation, triggering a wave of migration in the region.” Fortunately, the Biden administration and nearly all leading Democrats continue to oppose the military option inside Mexico, but as Republicans whip-up fears about the “fentanyl crisis,” advocates of restraint are likely to be waging a difficult, defensive political struggle.
Rising enthusiasm for the military panacea shows a continuing misunderstanding about the realities of the drug trade. Drug warriors refuse to face an inconvenient truth. Governments are not able to dictate whether people use fentanyl or other destructive substances. Such behavior has been part of human culture throughout history. Only the drugs of choice shift over time. Governments can determine only whether reputable businesses or violent criminal gangs are the suppliers. A prohibition strategy guarantees that it will be the latter – with all the accompanying violence and corruption. The ongoing bloody struggles among rival Mexican cartels to control the lucrative trafficking routes to the United States confirm that historical pattern.
Using the U.S. military against targets in Mexico will not change those economic incentives, especially the robust consumer demand for fentanyl and other mind-altering substances. GOP leaders would merely escalate yet another endless, unwinnable crusade while destroying relations with an important, neighboring country.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His books on the drug war in Latin America include Bad Neighbor Policy (2003) and The Fire Next Door (2012).