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Does the Right Want an Iraq War in Mexico?
A pair of congressmen are pushing for an AUMF down south.
Good afternoon, Press Pass readers! Make sure to tune in tonight to Thursday Night Bulwark. JVL, Bill, and Cathy will be joined by guest Eric Edelman to discuss the latest in the war in Ukraine starting at 8:00 p.m. ET. Exclusively for Bulwark+ members.
Today’s Press Pass focuses on the right’s increasing militarism about securing the southern border. When it comes to foreign policy, the right has been suffering an identity crisis. Whether openly defending adversaries like Russia or fantasizing about wiping Afghanistan “off the face of the earth,” Republicans sometimes appear deeply confused about how U.S. military resources should be used. I’ll explore a new proposal in Congress that aims to significantly increase the military’s ability to engage in Mexico and Central America.
An Iraq War Down in Mexico? It’s Not That Simple
Republican rhetoric about securing the U.S. border with Mexico has never been tame or nuanced. But in recent years, it has become increasingly aggravated, belligerent, and even militaristic. For example, consider remarks made just this week by a high-ranking House Republican.
On Tuesday, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the Oversight Committee, expressed disappointment in Donald Trump for not bombing parts of Mexico during his time in office. (Trump had proposed missile strikes on cartel drug labs, according to a book by his former defense secretary, Mark Esper.)
“One of the things we learned post-Trump presidency is that he had ordered a bombing of a couple of fentanyl labs, crystal meth labs, in Mexico, just across the border, and for whatever reason the military didn’t do it,” Comer said on Fox & Friends. “I think that was a mistake.”
Comer’s comments typify the right’s ongoing foreign policy identity crisis. Many elected Republicans are pushing a noninterventionist line when it comes to hostile foreign governments, such as Russia amid its illegal invasion of Ukraine, while at the same time demanding the United States drop bombs on our neighbors to the south. Comer himself recently called Ukraine one of our country’s “adversaries” while discussing a slew of Oversight Committee investigations into the Biden administration during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.
Now, a pair of lawmakers are proposing an Authorization for the use of Military Force (AUMF) to target the cartels and put an end to the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.
I spoke to the bill’s authors, Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Mike Waltz of Florida. While their proposal initially might strike you at first as sounding like launching Operation Desert Storm in America’s number-one foreign vacation spot, Crenshaw and Waltz offered a more tempered view of what an AUMF would actually entail.
First, the proposed AUMF lists nine specific cartels across Mexico and Central America and authorizes the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against them:
The Sinaloa Cartel.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
The Gulf Cartel.
The Los Zetas Cartel.
The Northeast Cartel.
The Juarez Cartel.
The Tijuana Cartel.
The Beltran-Levya Cartel.
The La Familia Michoacana, also known as the Knight Templar Cartel.
But the bill would not provide a free-for-all license to attack these organizations at the whim of an Army commander near the border or the captain of a Tomahawk-equipped destroyer traversing the Gulf of Mexico. “It becomes just an authorization to actually create a strategy,” Crenshaw says. “We don’t create the strategy necessarily. That’s the president's job. So it’s just the first step.”
The authors say they took as a model the United States’ approach to tackling the drug cartels in Colombia in the 1980s and ’90s, which Crenshaw said worked “because we had a strong partner in the Colombian government. This is what we’ve been lacking in Mexico.” In Mexico’s case, by contrast, the cartels are embedded in many areas of government.
“And so in Mexico, I think you’ve got to leverage [the Mexican government] more. I think that’s one of the reasons AUMF is useful. Because it lets them know we’re serious,” Crenshaw said. “The problem with this Mexican president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] is he doesn’t apparently want to solve the problem.” So the AUMF approach puts pressure on López Obrador to act, in hopes of something more like a Colombia-style collaboration with the United States.
The bill’s other author, Mike Waltz, was even less charitable toward Mexico, to put it lightly. He told me, “We have essentially an ungoverned narcoterrorist state directly on our border, and I would posture that if ISIS or Al Qaeda sent chemical weapons that killed 80,000 Americans, we would probably be thinking about it and doing something about it.”
Crenshaw said the recent surge in fentanyl has brought the United States to a breaking point on the issue, something that did not happen over decades of the illegal smuggling of less lethal substances.
“We could kind of live with [the influx of drugs from Central America] for a long time,” he said. “There's a big difference between heroin and cocaine and fentanyl. We can't live with it anymore. Fentanyl kills too many people.”
Their legislation includes some safeguards against starting another “forever war,” a possibility that is never far from mind with AUMFs. Crenshaw and Waltz’s bill would sunset after five years unless renewed by Congress. The Iraq War’s AUMF had no such limitation and is technically still in effect. (The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to repeal it just this week.)
An Iraq-like sinkhole is “not even a risk,” Crenshaw told me. “I mean, look, and even if that just means authorization for collection methods, it means authorization to actually partner with and operate with Mexican forces. That’s what it would be in practice. It’s up to the president on how to actually implement it, but you need authorization from Congress to do it. This is the first step. Obviously, you pass the bill and he signs it doesn't mean tanks rolling the next day.”
The proposal now has a companion in the Senate, too. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina announced his pending version of the bill on Wednesday, saying, “We are going to unleash the fury and might of the United States against these cartels. We are going to destroy their business model and their lifestyle, because our national security . . . depends on us taking this decisive action.”
Graham added a note about his forthcoming bill’s purpose, which is “not to invade Mexico. Not to shoot Mexican airplanes down. But to destroy drug labs that are poisoning Americans.”
Mexican President López Obrador said in a press conference Thursday he would launch a public relations campaign urging Americans to vote against Republicans if bills like Crenshaw and Waltz’s advance. It’s easy to understand his alarm: For all the qualifications the congressmen offered, their bill exists to authorize the use of military force on sovereign, undisputed Mexican territory. A Canadian bill authorizing military strikes against, say, marijuana growers flouting American federal law in California would probably elicit a response from American politicians somewhat more severe than the promise of a negative P.R. campaign.
But in a divided Congress and with Joe Biden in the White House, the bill is likely going nowhere anyway, destined to become a no-future messaging vehicle for Republicans looking to take an ostentatiously hard stance on border security. Because it’s modeled on a somewhat successful prior approach in Colombia, it’s possible to conceive of a bipartisan coalition emerging to support it—but certainly not anytime soon.