Republican anger at Mexico, long-simmering over the continuous immigration and narcotics crises on the United States’ southern border, is now spilling over into bellicosity. Led by Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, some Republicans are advocating for military action against drug cartels on Mexican territory. Even the recent two-decade debacle of using the U.S. military to fight drugs coming from Afghanistan has not dissuaded these Republicans from what will likely be another futile martial approach.
DeSantis has proposed conducting unilateral raids into Mexican territory to disrupt fentanyl manufacturing, contributing to over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2022 alone. Supporting the offensive, a naval blockade of Mexican ports would intercept the producers’ raw materials imported from China. The first option resembles progressive president Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempt to capture Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa in 1916–1917, which ended in a humiliating U.S. military retreat from the territory of our southern neighbor. A naval blockade is risky since it's traditionally considered an act of war. Both Mexico and China, the latter a great power armed with nuclear weapons, would be incensed by this gambit. The international community would be in uproar over the violation of the freedom of navigation. Moreover, a blockade would significantly undercut Washington’s Asia policy. The U.S. Navy conducts regular missions in the South and East China Seas to deter Chinese forces from making good on their own grandiose territorial claims. A blockade of Veracruz or Tampico would make claims to uphold a “free and open Indo-Pacific” ring hollow.
As president, Donald Trump toyed with the idea of designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, which would then have opened the way for cross-border military action against them. His secretary of defense, Mark Esper, has since reported that he openly wondered why he could not launch missiles at drug-making facilities in Mexico. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and neither step was taken.
Presidential candidate Tim Scott voiced an even more ambitious and dangerous plan to deal with the cartels: “When I am president, the drug cartels using Chinese labs and Mexican factories to kill Americans will cease to exist. I will freeze their assets, I will build the wall, and I will allow the world’s greatest military to fight these terrorists.” Is he advocating for attacks on Chinese soil and property?
Although hot campaign rhetoric cools once a candidate wins the presidency and faces the demands of the office, the fact that the temperature is this high is counterproductive and perilous.
As the last twenty years have shown, military force authorization can be a slippery slope to unrestrained military adventurism. Instead of limiting operations to the capture or killing of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, per Congress’ 2001 joint resolution, then-President George W. Bush interpreted the declaration loosely to authorize unilateral military action against any nation that was unwilling or unable to combat terrorism. This policy included the invasions and occupations of two countries, spurring more retaliatory violence worldwide.
Bush’s usurpation of Congress’s constitutional war-making power resembled the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, promulgated by Teddy Roosevelt, the first progressive president, in 1904. Prior to the Roosevelt administration, the Monroe Doctrine proclaimed that the United States would stay out of Europe’s conflicts but oppose European colonization or re-colonization in the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt amended the doctrine, proclaiming the right of U.S. intervention throughout the Americas if political instability or financial insolvency increased the chances of European intervention. This corollary emboldened other presidents to meddle in Latin America, including Wilson’s ill-starred foray into the Mexican Civil War.
The 2024 Republican candidates’ martial rhetoric on unilateral military action in Mexico echoes the failed policies of early twentieth-century progressives and the Bush administration after 9/11. Yet most Republican candidates have repudiated the Bush administration’s general interventionist foreign policy that led to the protracted quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A better policy would be to deal with drug use by cutting demand through changing culture and by remediation through medical treatment instead of aggressively and unsuccessfully trying to reduce supply using law enforcement or military action. Still, those solutions aren’t macho enough for a party whose base wants to blame Mexico for what is America’s drug addiction problem.
Ivan Eland, Senior Fellow with the Independent Institute and author of several books, including, No War For Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East.