Over the past few years, thousands of Americans have died from fentanyl-related overdoses, a synthetic opioid that is approximately fifty times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is easy to produce in large quantities, especially when compared to a drug like cocaine, and its potential impact is enormous. According to one indictment of the Sinaloa Cartel, a mere $800 investment in the precursor chemicals to make fentanyl can yield a profit of up to $640,000.
In 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized enough fentanyl to kill every single American citizen. Prominent GOP presidential candidates have made campaign vows to “unleash” the U.S. military on the cartels, with Ron DeSantis pledging to send in troops “on day one.” Donald Trump has pledged to “inflict maximum damage” on the cartels, while Nikki Haley has advocated that the United States “eliminate them just like we did ISIS.” At the recent GOP debate in Miami, Haley even went as far as to say the United States should end all trade relations with China until the flow of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl from there into Mexico is stopped, followed by attacks on the cartels’ “supply centers.” Indeed, the fentanyl-related deaths of so many Americans in recent years, including over 70,000 in 2022 alone, mean that the United States cannot ignore this issue. When it comes to calculating what is in the national interest of any given country, preventing the death of its citizens is undoubtedly a primary concern.
However, are brute force and bravado the best solution?
If the United States launches a war in Mexico, it will be met by one of the most powerful forces in the universe: nationalism. The Mexican government will not welcome this intervention, as evidenced by the strong rhetoric used by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and other influential leaders. They have made it clear that they would not support any type of foreign intervention and would not cooperate with U.S. forces. They have also stated that such an intervention would mean the end of any U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. This is partly due to the United States’ track record of interventions in Latin America, which are remembered negatively by the countries involved. This new source of anti-American resentment could increase support for leaders not as friendly to the United States, pushing these states away from Washington.
A war in Mexico could quickly grow into a larger fight than initially anticipated, and matters would be made more difficult without cooperation from the Mexican government. The nature of war is conducive to escalation for several reasons: the tendency to underestimate the power of nationalism, the problem of sunk costs, and the heightened hostility and desire for vengeance. As a result, the capacity and willingness to negotiate declines. For example, if Americans begin to hear reports of American troops dying in Mexico or violence spilling over the border, public opinion could quickly call for an increased use of force that could lead to a long and drawn-out conflict. This incursion would not simply be “over in minutes.” Even targeted drone strikes that could take innocent civilian life could provoke escalatory behavior from the cartels and certainly would be denounced in almost every capital south of the Rio Grande.
There is also a question of capability. Currently, there is a bipartisan effort to sustain substantial military aid to Ukraine, effectively deter China in the Indo-Pacific, and support Israel in its war against Hamas. Former Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) has already called for the United States to go ahead and attack Iran, remarking, “Hamas would not be Hamas without Iranian support.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has also warned Iran, stating, “If this war grows, it’s coming to your backyard.” A former CIA officer has called for regime change in Iran. At the same time, President Joe Biden has declared that because the United States is “the most powerful nation in the history of the world,” it can accomplish everything it wants. But with the United States committing resources to Ukraine and Israel while also attempting to mitigate Chinese “threats to the international system” in the Indo-Pacific, launching a new war south of the border would require a re-ranking of strategic priorities.
Another issue with attempting to use military force to eradicate cartel activity is that there is no guarantee that fentanyl will stop entering the United States if all U.S. military objectives are achieved. A war on drugs is complicated by the difficulty of pinning down the enemy’s “center of gravity.” According to one of history’s great military minds, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, the center of gravity is “the hub of all power and movement upon which everything depends…the point against which all energies should be directed.” This could be the enemy’s army, capital, or “the army of their protector.” Among alliances, “it lies in the community of interest, and in popular uprisings, it is the personalities of the leaders and public opinion.”
With drugs, however, there is no “center of gravity.” If the United States defeats the cartels in one region of Mexico, they will simply move to another. If they were to be entirely driven out of Mexico, they would simply relocate to another country. The low costs of production and lucrative profits mean that either the current Mexican cartels would find a way to produce and ship the product to the United States or another group would form to take its place. Success should be measured in lowering the amount of deadly fentanyl consumed by Americans, not simply defeating the cartels on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the nature of this problem means that brute force is unlikely to ultimately lower the amount of fentanyl produced and shipped to the United States.
Before barreling into Mexico with guns blazing, the United States should consider more calculated approaches that do not include drawing itself into a war. One potential avenue of exploration is immigration policy and border security. Washington can get Mexico to approach its own security in a way that benefits the United States by prioritizing lower levels of illegal immigration. AMLO, along with heads of state from eleven other Latin American states, recently signed the Palenque Declaration, which stated that it is a basic human right to migrate to another country and called on “destination countries,” which are the United States and Canada, to accommodate migrants with opportunities to work and increase pathways for migration. Low barriers or no barriers to migration is clearly an interest of Mexico in its relationship with the United States, and Washington should make every attempt to leverage this when dealing with the fentanyl crisis. Clamping down on the porous border can create policy change in Mexico in terms of how it handles its domestic security relative to drug cartels and also make it more difficult for the drugs to be shipped into the United States. Enhanced border security to decrease illicit drug flows should be the first policy change the United States makes to combat this issue. This is one option that does not involve starting another war in an already tumultuous world.
The United States is in a position where it must make tough, calculated, and prudent choices, not simply approach its issues with a wrecking ball and hope for the best.
George Barber is a Fall Editorial Intern at The National Interest and a student at the University of Georgia.
Image: Creative Commons.