The U.S. strategic nightmare in the Western Hemisphere would be the rise of a regime with the desperation of Haiti, the hostility of Cuba, the cash of Venezuela, the capabilities of Brazil, and the proximity of Mexico--and in the future that country could actually be Mexico. Such a sea change would not happen overnight. After all, one out of ten Mexicans now lives in the United States; the personal and cultural bonds of our countries are stronger and more sympathetic than ever before; and much willful ignorance on both sides of the border has been dispelled. But it is time for Americans to start worrying that during the last decade Mexico's political culture and governing institutions have become ossified and paralytic and may be getting too sclerotic even to identify the country's long-term challenges, let alone build a consensus to address them.
Mexico's 2006 presidential elections were a harbinger of just how close we are to the tipping point for an alternative future for North America. In a three-way race, the leftist-populist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost by a razor-thin 0.5% to President Felipe Calderon of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). Lopez Obrador's post-election antics--declaring himself the "legitimate president" and deliberately attempting to make the country ungovernable--confirmed the belief of many of the two-thirds of Mexicans who did not vote for him that, had he been elected, he would have governed in the style of disastrous, authoritarian populism championed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Mexico's 2009 midterm elections produced big gains for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) at the expense of both PAN and PRD. Despite garnering 49 percent of seats in the lower house, the fact that the victorious PRI won less than 37 percent of the popular vote shows how fractured Mexico's political landscape really is. Even though the Mexican electorate brought Lopez Obrador back to earth, the frustration, anxiety, and resentment of the poor and middle classes remain. It is far from clear that the PRI will provide an outlet for their needs.
A COMPLEX NATION
No U.S. administration can afford to "ignore" Mexico or does in actuality; it is really our media that ignores the region. The danger with such blinkered attention is that it fixates on the latest spectacular crisis at the expense of all else. Mexico is not just a border: it is a multidimensional nation, with breadth and depth and a tough southern border of its own. We must not let our relationship with Mexico get mired in a reductionist narrative about drugs, as it got mired in reductionist narratives about terrorism and illegal immigration after September 11.
U.S. policy discussions about Mexico have been colored by media coverage, congressional hearings, and reports from various U.S. agencies (including an influential long-range study from the U.S. Joint Forces Command, coupled with a disturbing report by former U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey), which frame the issue of whether the onslaught of the cartels might make Mexico a "failed state" within the next decade.
Such warnings are not to be taken lightly. Mexico has a tough fight ahead, and it may well take a decade to turn the country around. But there is no lack of brave and honorable Mexicans to do the job. The odds are that Mexico will not become a "failed state" on account of narcoterrorists. However, in a country with intractable geography such as Mexico's, an unreliable police force, and as many as 500,000 people involved in the drug trade, a meagerly equipped army of 200,000 is simply not enough. The Calderon administration's strategy, echoing that of Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe Velez, is to expand and upgrade the security forces while dismembering the four or five largest cartels into fifty or so weak and isolated units. …