Rick Perry Wants to Send the Military into Mexico to Fight Drugs

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The Texas governor told a New Hampshire crowd that doing so might be necessary to stem the flow of narcotics into America

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Before this weekend, the strongest argument against putting Gov. Rick Perry in the White House came from Radley Balko. "A state government has no more awesome, complete, or solemn power than the power to execute its own citizens. If you're going to claim to loathe big government, this is one area where you ought to be more skeptical of government than any other," he wrote. But confronted with the possibility that Texas had executed an innocent man, "Perry used his own power to keep himself and his constituents ignorant, lest they begin to question whether government should have such power." And his success meant that the state's citizens were prevented from a full investigation of "a possibly historical government error."

Put another way, Perry behaved like a man who shouldn't be trusted with extreme power. As objectionable as his actions remain, however, he reminded voters and pundits of an even bigger reason to doubt his judgment in the weekend speech he gave in New Hampshire, where he mused on a step he might take if made Commander in Chief. "Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Saturday that he would consider sending U.S. troops into Mexico to combat drug-related violence and stop it from spilling into the southern United States," The Washington Post reported. "The way that we were able to stop the drug cartels in Colombia was with a coordinated effort," Perry said. "It may require our military in Mexico working in concert with them to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border and to destroy their networks."

For starters, it's worth describing in detail the Colombia policy that Perry regards as a success and wants to emulate. Here's the big picture: we've been helping that country to fight the drug war (along with its leftist rebels) for almost 40 years, and still haven't won (though Colombia had recent, notable success against the rebels). Since the last year of the Clinton Administration, we've given billions of dollars in aid each year and provided a combination of U.S. military personnel and DEA agents to give on the ground advice. How's it all going? Summarizing a 2010 study conducted by academics from Harvard and the Center for Global Development, Ray Fisman wrote that "a recent evaluation of military and anti-narcotics aid to Colombia argues that neither American nor Colombian interests were well served by U.S.-supplied training and arms. The authors find that rather than bringing stability, increases in military aid caused spikes in violence from Colombia's infamous paramilitary organizations and had no impact whatsoever on coca production. Plan Colombia, it seems, may have served as little more than a conduit for channeling weapons to the destabilizing influences that it was meant to suppress."

Here's how Amnesty International characterizes American policy in the country: "The US has continued a policy of throwing 'fuel on the fire' of already widespread human rights violations, collusion with illegal paramilitary groups and near total impunity. Furthermore, after 10 years and over $8 billion dollars of US assistance to Colombia, US policy has failed to reduce availability or use of cocaine in the US, and Colombia's human rights record remains deeply troubling. Despite this, the State Department continues to certify military aid to Colombia, even after reviewing the country's human rights record." It concludes that "Plan Colombia is a failure in every respect and human rights in Colombia will not improve until there is a fundamental shift in US foreign policy."

Then there are the latest news reports, like this September 26, 2011 story from Fox News Latino:

A deteriorating security situation across Colombia has the Andean nation scrambling to find new ways to wage its decades-long civil war against the left-wing insurgent FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), as well as right-wing paramilitary groups and drug gangs. Recently, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his entire military command was replaced with the exception of the national police director.  The radical change follows ongoing criticism of increasing violent incidents across the country.

The FARC has ramped up its campaign of violence, with some NGOs estimating that almost 170 attacks were staged this year in one state alone. While the majority of Colombians interviewed by a Gallup poll say that the situation with guerilla groups is not going well, Santos believes that the attacks are a sign of their weakness and exemplifies how they will do anything to get attention. 

I'd ask Santos this: if you're seizing two submarines from drug cartels in a single week, is that a sign of their strength or weakness? From all this, it is safe to conclude either that Perry doesn't know very much about Colombia, or that he has wrongheaded ideas about what constitutes success in foreign policy.

And that brings us back to Mexico. Would American troops ensure that drug violence stopped spilling into the United States? My guess, based on the tactics of terrorism practiced by Mexican drug cartels, is that we'd be putting our troops in a bloody counterinsurgency situation, and perhaps making our civilians the targets of cross-border terrorism. Mexico might meanwhile object that, given the inability of American law enforcement to stop the drug trade in America (and the ATF's decision to send guns to Mexican cartels!), Mexico has just as much reason to send its troops into this country.

It's bad enough that Perry is inclined to escalate the war on drugs, even though, as Steven Taylor puts it, "If one thing should be clear from the available data," it's that "force alone is not going to solve this problem. The war on drugs is unwinnable and anyone who suggests that all we need is simply more money, more force, or some combination thereof, is simply revealing their lack of understanding." Alas, President Obama and most of Perry's GOP rivals, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson excepted, don't seem to understand the folly of their counter-narcotics policies either.

What past presidents have managed to avoid so far, despite covert DEA operations and anti-drug aid to other countries, is putting a lot of our troops in a dangerous, strategically hopeless effort that could radicalize the population of a southern neighbor with lots of nationals in our country. Does the GOP want a nominee whose apparently under-informed response to the drug problem is a military incursion into a neighbor and ally? Who speaks so carelessly about a matter of such sensitivity to Mexico, even as he is the governor of Texas, a neighboring state? Everything about this suggests a man it would be unwise to empower. To be fair, anyone can make a mistake speaking extemporaneously, but according to ABC News, "Perry has long supported sending U.S. troops to Mexico to help with the drug war." Let's see if Perry sticks to his position: that what America needs to keep us safe is to have our troops fighting in yet another country.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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