Until September 11, Mexico's President Vicente Fox and George W. Bush were soul mates. They called themselves the "two amigos," exchanged muscular bear hugs, and trumpeted a new era in bilateral affairs. With an eye on propitiating the swelling ranks of Mexican American voters, Bush committed himself to normalizing the status of the 4 million-plus Mexicans who reside illegally north of the Rio Grande, issuing more visas to Fox's countrymen, and greatly enlarging the program that authorizes Mexican guest workers in the United States. For his part, the democratically elected Fox pledged to cooperate closely in the antidrug war, crack down on smugglers of humans and contraband, and generate opportunities for Mexicans to work at home.
After September 11, however, relations began to deteriorate. While the White House was seeking unambiguous, no-nonsense support for its crusade against terrorism, Fox's top ministers clashed over the stance their nation should take. Frustrated by his skimpy domestic achievements, Fox began to play the time-tested anti-American card. He huffily cancelled a late-August 2002 visit with Bush in Texas, because of the Texas execution of a Mexican citizen convicted of murder. Mexico followed this petulant act by proclaiming its intention to pull out of the Inter-American Reciprocal Defense Treaty. True, this pact is as outmoded as a Pancho Villa mustache, but Mexico's timing--several days before the first anniversary of the terrorist attack--raised hackles among U.S. policy mavens.
Meanwhile, back in Mexico, Fox proved unable to gain his own Congress's approval for crucial tax, energy, and labor initiatives. Although a masterful campaigner, the tall, boot-wearing leader disdains the schmoozing and back scratching required to forge legislative coalitions. Another impediment to alliance building is the eagerness Jorge Castaneda, Fox's bright but hyperarrogant foreign secretary, to pick fights gratuitously with senators, deputies, and fellow ministers. Indeed, the preference of Fox's entourage for self-expression over teamwork has earned them the sobriquet of the "Montessori cabinet."
In October, when the UN Security Council, on which Mexico sits in one of the ten rotating seats, debated the U.S. resolution to compel Iraq to surrender its weapons of mass destruction, Mexico sided with France against the initial U.S. proposal. That decision helped forge the consensus eventually adopted unanimously last month by the Security Council, but it did not endear Mexico or Fox to the Bush administration. In view of the overwhelming economic and political importance of the United States to its southern neighbor, Mexico might have opted for private rather than public diplomacy on this sensitive issue. Bush did nothing to hide his frostiness toward Fox when the two men met at a summit of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Los Cabos, Mexico.
Many Mexico-watchers believe that Fox was playing hard-ball over Iraq to "leverage" the Bush administration on immigration. Reportedly, the Mexicans believe a window of opportunity will fly open when the new Congress convenes in January. Then, they hope, the White House--backed by labor, business, and Mexican American lobbies--will throw a full-court press on lawmakers to enact measures championed by Mexico City. This theory sounds plausible, but a medley of factors--the prospect of war, divisions among advocacy groups, the late-October arrival of Haitian boat people in Florida, rising unemployment, and the illegal status of the seventeen-year-old alleged D.C.-area sniper--may frustrate such a game plan. Moreover, even the most tin-eared lawmakers sense that the American public never shared Bush's zeal for relaxing border controls. In a fall 2001 poll, Zogby International found that an overwhelming proportion of whites (79 percent), African …