THOUGH NO ONE IS LIKELY TO MISTAKE MEXICO FOR a Muslim country--even one of the friendly, oil-exporting ones--the United States' declaration of war on terrorism has forced its southern neighbor into a predicament not altogether different from the one faced by moderate Middle Eastern countries like Oman or Saudi Arabia. If the country's government does not actively support the U.S. coalition against terror, it risks international ostracism and alienation from America; but if it appears too eager to support U.S. ventures abroad, it risks losing political support at home. Indeed, the foreign policy of Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, which before September 11 had made a closer relationship with the United States its top priority, is now teetering atop a smoldering volcano.
For years the United States has at times treated Mexico a little like Saudi Arabia--dependent on close ties to the United States but given to theatrical gestures of defiance. Yes, the Saudis bankrolled Yasir Arafat and the PLO, but they also sold oil to America and were thought to provide a bulwark of stability in the Middle East. So the United States mostly looked the other way where the darker aspects of its foreign policy were concerned. Similarly, while Mexico was providing support to anti-American entities like Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the FMLN in El Salvador, Washington looked upon the Mexican government as the lesser of many possible evils and put up with its sometimes unhelpful foreign policy in the region for the sake of stability next door.
But after last year's elections brought Fox to power, he and Jorge Castaneda, his foreign minister, proclaimed that everything in Mexico was going to change, including its foreign policy. Confident of its newly won democratic legitimacy--a novel experience for a Mexican administration--the incoming government believed that it could abandon what remained of its defensive posturing toward the United States and approach its northern neighbor as a partner and ally.
Castaneda had been a Communist Party leader in his youth, an architect of Mexican strategy against U.S. policy in Central America, and his country's premier opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now, however, he made it clear to everyone on both sides of the border--even to the satisfaction of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the conservative warhorse--that he had purged himself of the old anti-American radicalism. Mexican nationalism would henceforth signify not opposition to the United States but rather a determination to transform Mexico and to appeal unapologetically for American help in doing so. To this end, Fox and Castaneda set out to press for a tighter relationship than ever with Washington, audaciously charting a long-term course for the unification of North America along the lines of the European Union.
When Fox came to visit George W. Bush in Washington for a much ballyhooed state visit in the first week of September, it appeared that this course was set. Capitalizing on Bush's gushy proclamation that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico," Fox called for a new era of trust between neighbors and even demanded that the United States work out a troublesome migration agreement on Mexico's terms by year's end. Although they returned home without any concrete promises from their American hosts, Fox and Castaneda nonetheless returned to Mexico City in triumph for having foisted their agenda on the Bush administration.
FIVE DAYS LATER, THE TERRORISTS STRUCK. CASTANEDA rushed to solidify the pro-American policy he had established by expressing not only his government's sympathy but--in a major departure for Mexico--even support of U.S. retaliation. Glancing sideways for the anti-American sentiment that still lingered in Mexican society, he added rather hopefully that he expected the United States to strike back quickly and get it over with. …