I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.