The Fallacy of Republican Calls to Use Military Force in Mexico to Combat the Fentanyl Crisis

As presidential hopefuls from both sides of the aisle begin to announce their bids for 2024 presidency, an absurd policy idea dating back to the Trump administration’s time in office is once again gaining traction. As a way to address the worsening fentanyl crisis in the United States, prominent members of the GOP are calling on the Biden administration to bomb the drug cartels in Mexico.

Republicans Want to Bomb the Cartels

Former President Donald Trump, according to former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s memoir, seriously considered “using missiles to take out drug labs and cartels in Mexico.” More recently, Mr. Trump, as he ramps up his candidacy run for 2024, reportedly asked for a “battle plan” to attack Mexico. Even more frightening, nearly every Republican who has put their hat into the ring for the 2024 Republican nomination supports this foolish idea.

The idea of using military force against the cartels is gaining traction with Republicans in Congress as well. Leading Republicans in both the Senate and the House of Republicans have proposed legislation that would authorize the use of military force in Mexico to fight the cartels that Republican lawmakers say are perpetuating the fentanyl crisis in the United States. For one, In January, Republican Representatives Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Mike Waltz of Florida introduced legislation that would create an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to do just that. Even Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called on U.S. military forces to “destroy drug labs,” despite saying the military should not forcibly enter Mexico.

The Fentanyl Crisis

Without a doubt, the fentanyl crisis in the United States is dire. In 2021, 107,000 people died of preventable opioid overdoses. Of these deaths, nearly two-thirds were caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller that is even stronger than heroin and often prescribed by physicians as pain treatment. And the crisis is only getting worse as the number of deaths increased by 15 percent when compared to 2020.

U.S. law enforcement officials note that fentanyl is “mass-produced by Mexican drug cartels” and smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border only to be distributed by American criminal networks. The Drug Enforcement Administration also tied the production and supply of fentanyl to China, noting that China provides the chemicals the cartels use to produce the drugs. Fortunately, not all Republicans support this absurd approach. However, the willingness of some Republicans to embrace this idea only suggests that the idea is becoming a serious policy consideration in the party.

Cooler Heads Prevail

On the other hand, the Biden administration shows no inclination to bomb cartels in Mexico. President Joe Biden flat out rejected labeling the cartels as terrorist groups, another proposal introduced by prominent Republicans, and is against the idea of launching an invasion of the United States’ southern neighbor. Mr. Biden just ended America’s forever war in Afghanistan in August 2021, after coming into office with the promise of bringing that conflict to a close. “This administration is not considering military action in Mexico,” the National Security Council spokesperson recently stated. Further, according the NSC spokesperson, “…designating these cartels as foreign terrorist organizations would not grant us any additional authorities that we don’t already have.” Mr. Biden understands that the American public has little appetite for another forever war, especially of a country the United States considers to be an ally.

Mexico is Not a Fan

Not surprisingly, Mexico has reacted without enthusiasm to the GOP’s proposal. When this idea first resurfaced in early March, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, more popularly known as AMLO, issued a strong rebuke against the Republican lawmakers. Citing a violation of Mexican sovereignty, AMLO stated, “We are not going to allow any foreign government to intervene and much less foreign armed forces to intervene in our territory.” While not directly related to the fentanyl crisis, the deaths of several U.S. citizens at the hands of cartels in Mexico resurrected the debate of using military force in Mexico within the GOP, AMLO fully blames the United States for its fentanyl problem, associating the crisis with America’s “social decay.”

Just Say No

Calls for the United States to use military force against the cartels in Mexico are ill-advised. For one, using military force in Mexico without its approval would be a violation of Mexican sovereignty. This would be hypocritical of the United States, especially when the United States has rounded up a coalition of like-minded allies and partners in the name of protecting the international rules-based order and as a means of punishing Russia for its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty when Russia launched its war in Ukraine last spring.

Moreover, bombing the cartels will not solve the entire issue. While using military force against the cartels may disrupt the supply side of the equation, it will not upset the high drug demand in the United States. Simply concentrating on the supply side is not enough; the U.S. government needs to take policy actions to address the demand for fentanyl in the United States as well.

Using military force against the cartels in Mexico would also likely lead to a surge of asylum seekers rushing to the U.S.-Mexico border to flee a war zone, further perpetuating the unprecedented and already dangerous situation. Republicans from across the government harshly criticize and blame the Biden administration for the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. The irony is that, should the GOP follow through on such threats, any action would only increase the number of people seeking asylum in the United States, thus weakening the Republican Party’s arguments that Democrats are weak on border security.

Lasty, using military force without Mexico’s permission would destroy the United States’ critical relationship with its neighbor to the south. This is a major cause for concern. Even Chairman Mike McCaul of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – despite considering the AUMF proposal – noted that he “has concerns about the immigration implications and the bilateral relationship with Mexico.” The United States and Mexico already have a strained relationship and it is also a relationship that the United States takes for granted, according to Dan Restrepo, a former Obama administration official and expert on Latin America. Using military force against cartels in Mexico without Mexico’s permission could push an already strained relationship further into crisis.

The Biden administration is smart to refuse entertaining the idea of using military force in Mexico to address the fentanyl crisis and bomb cartels, as prominent Republicans suggest. This is especially true as Mexico is a neighbor, an ally, and critical trade partner with whom the United States desperately needs cooperation on a host of other security and trade issues. If the United States were to follow through with hollow threats of bombing cartels in Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico relationship may never recover.

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