When we think about the wars the United States has fought on its home continent only a few usually come to mind. The American Revolution and the Civil War of course top the list. Some even remember the War of 1812 (aka the Second War of Independence). After that, it starts getting a little vague. There are the Indian Wars, of course. And then there is the Mexican-American War… which many think began and ended at the Alamo (and which Mexicans refer to as “The U.S. Invasion”). Since I’m a native of the land that eventually ended up as a U.S. territory as a result of the treaty that ended the war in 1848, I think it’s safe to say that the war with our southern neighbor is something that is definitely a memorable part of my family’s history.
Because it’s been over 160 years since this last conventional war on the continent, it’s been easy to become complacent about threats that don’t happen to be an ocean or two away. It might be time to become more aware of the dangers that are on our own doorstep and not be overly distracted by battles being fought elsewhere. Why? Because there could be a danger looming south of the border…not just with Mexico, but with greater Latin America.
The legacy of the Monroe doctrine has been an unease between the United States and the southern countries in the western hemisphere. What was supposed to be a revocation of European meddling in North and South American affairs grew to be a sort of fiat for U.S. presidents to interfere with Latin American governments—forcefully, if deemed necessary. This “Big Stick” philosophy has never set well with our neighbors, nor should it have.
Though lip service is paid and diplomatic niceties observed, the obvious reality is that many U.S. presidents have considered the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries to be “less”. I’m not saying that this is intentionally malicious, but it colors policy. After all, if these yokels don’t do things how we want them done, we have every right to knock them around to get our way. They’ll appreciate our wisdom in the end.
Unfortunately, this sort of arrogance has managed to cultivate a point of view that the United States only cares about the affairs of Latin America when it can profit from it.
The island nation that looks like it’s being pissed on by Florida has been an anchor on U.S. Latin American policy for a while. The U.S. position in the region will never stabilize until the U.S. gives up its ridiculous pouting match with the Castro regime. Yeah, he made himself dictator instead of allowing us to install our selected puppet dictator. It’s been fifty years…I don’t think the Cuban government is going to cave, and even if it did, to what end? It’s time that we ended this childish stance of ours for we might need that peaceful neighbor at some point in the future.
Cuba’s influence in parts of Latin America is strong not because it is a great exporter or because it brings wealth and prestige to the region. It has influence because it didn’t knuckle under to U.S. pressure. There is something to be said for independent defiance of the giant next door.
Consider then what happens if the U.S. offers to normalize not only political but economic relations with Cuba. Some of the reasons for resentment are lessened. It shows that the United States is willing to work with its neighbors, even one that it recently considered a pariah. This diplomatic coup could be the lynchpin for peace.
It’s hardly a secret that the drug-running gangs of Mexico are becoming a problem. They’ve been a thorn in the side of the Mexican government for a while, but it’s now starting to spill over in an obvious way across the border into the United States. Governors of border states have made inquiries about the U.S. government deploying regular military (not National Guard) troops to protect in the event there is much more escalation of this deadly criminal activity.
The flashpoint of any actual war will be northern Mexico and the U.S. border states. If the United States feels sufficiently threatened and also concludes that Mexico cannot handle the situation on its own (or even if the government asks for help), then there could be war.
Using the Patriot Act and other doctrines as models of excuse, the U.S. would declare the gangs of Mexico to be a terrorist threat to the lives of Americans and would decide to be forceful in its dealings. We aren’t talking a few helicopters spraying herbicide on some fields, but ground troops and warplanes dropping bombs. If that starts to happen, then there will be a cascade of public opinion in Central and South America that will drive governments to act.
It’s at this point that a prior reconciliation with Cuba will be seen has having been very wise. A penny-ante dictator like Chavez of Venezuela will immediately pounce on this U.S. aggression. If he has the symbol of a still isolated Cuba to bolster his bluster, then it will be easier for him to marshal other governments to his point of view.
I have been arguing for decades that it is in the United States’ best interest to pay attention to all the countries to our south. They have a history of dramatic and often violent political change that is rarely regionally stable for long. The Monroe doctrine and the Big Stick ideology haven’t helped matters as we’ve the the cause of some of that instability. Because the U.S. has historically been more of a meddler instead of a partner, Latin America has had little reason to believe our rhetoric regarding their affairs.
A consequence of our spotty (at best) diplomatic ties is that if the United States is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being an aggressor with expansionist tendencies—which, given some of the people with power in those countries, I wouldn’t be surprised—then the seemingly manageable Mexican gangs might end up being well-supplied and manned “contras”.
Let’s not forget that Mexican nationals (gangs) have already set up bases of operation within our borders as it’s more efficient to manage drug distribution and profit. These wolves in our midst could easily start spreading terror behind the front lines.
With mercenary units meeting us in Mexico and infiltrators sowing foment on our own soil, the president will have little choice but to prosecute the war as more than a little skirmish. Policy will be drafted (again, echoing Monroe’s doctrine) that will consider any government actively supplying forces against the United States to be an enemy of war. At that point, I can imagine, Venezuela, Columbia, and others will become openly involved. Now the battle is less about drugs and gangs than it will be about ideology and Latin American influence.
It must be remembered that the disenfranchised can often be recruited into these battles. It’s happened in the Middle East for decades, and it can easily happen to our south. While many are sympathetic to the United States, it ultimately comes down to what they think will make their lives better. Sitting back and letting the U.S. and others play a real-world version of Risk won’t be propagandized as a course that has worked.
As friendly governments struggle against toppling, the entire hemisphere will find itself embroiled in war. Some non-hemisphere nations will offer assistance to the various sides, but with the U.S. having to focus on its more local needs, the rest of the world will be dealing with their own problems.
Fortunately, none of this is at all certain. While I’m sure some military intervention (Mexican-only or joint-force) against the gangs is inevitable, I believe it can be localized.
First, we need to have a non-binding understanding with Mexican president Calderón that if things get too dicey, U.S. troops will be “invited” to protect the border in order to prevent any unfortunate escalations. The key is that the U.S. should never feel so threatened that it believes that it is forced to act unilaterally.
Relations need to be normalized with Cuba. It’s been a thorn in the side of U.S.-Latin American diplomacy for far too long. If we stop treating our neighbors with disrespect, our standing will improve.
The United States needs to divert some of its diplomatic focus to Central and South America. We need to listen. Not do. Not “guide”. Not “influence”. Listen. These are proud countries, not poor children. We can’t expect them to care what we think if we don’t care enough to hear what they are saying.
And we need to get a little more serious about quashing the Mexican gangs that are now north of the border. They are a legitimate threat not only to our youth, but to the peace and security of the nation. Or are we going to let happen here what is now happening in Mexico, where the gangs are starting to take control of regions of the country? I say let’s stop it now.
As I said, this is just one domino scenario of how things could get out of hand. The main reason it could happen ultimately comes down to a failure of diplomacy. If we are judiciously proactive, I think all of the above just becomes the product of the imagination of a bored blogger. But I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of missteps when it comes to the United States’ hemispheric policies, and I’m tired of us being more committed to lands oceans away than we are to all the other people who can rightfully call themselves “Americans”. We all belong to the American hemisphere…it couldn’t hurt for us, all of us, to try harder to be good neighbors.