zenpundit.com » 2009 » March

Archive for March, 2009


Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

My previous post stirred some interest in the blogosphere on the issue of Mexico being in danger of becoming a “Failed State” and prompted others to respond with Mexico related analysis of their own. Here are some that caught my eye:

           POINT – Mexico is a Failed State or at least in some danger of becoming so:

Threatswatch.org (Fraser) Los Zetas and the Denial of Mexico’s Failed State Status

The softening of words and the aversion to stating the obvious by the Administration simply obliterates the reality that President Felipe Calderón of Mexico “leads” a country dominated by the cartels and not governed by the federal government. The transparent denial of the recent Joint Operating Environment report is troubling at best.

To better understand just how close to the precipice he is, it might be worthwhile to take another look at the organization (and movement) of Los Zetas. As a reminder, Los Zetas are a paramilitary group tied to the Gulf Cartel. Their origins and their evolution from being deserters from the Mexican special forces to a criminal organization is chronicled in a report from International Relations and Security Network

….With each of the original members training at least another ten, they grew to over 300 strong by 2003. In just the first quarter of 2009, Los Zetas (the organization) has been linked to a death threat against the president of Guatemala, the hand grenade tossed in Pharr, Texas and various other criminal acts. The ranks of Los Zetas has grown, and strikingly, they have broken ranks with the Gulf Cartel. Over time however, and with the deaths of some of the original Zetas, they have morphed into an organization. This is a very important distinction to note.

RBO Are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico ‘failed states’? If so, then what?

….In particular there is recent debate as to whether Mexico is/is not a failed state. If it is, then we ask whether its “failed” status is on a par with such other failed states as Pakistan and Afghanistan? – Even though there are those who do not subscribe to the notion that either of them is a failed state.

As always, let’s start at the beginning. What is a failed state?

In the simplest of definitions, a failed state is one that has a “shattered social and political structure.”

Writing December 1999 for the International Review of the Red Cross, Daniel Thürer, J.D. (right), Professor of International Law, European Law, Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at the University of Zurich, said

    Failing States are invariably the product of a collapse of the power structures providing political support for law and order, a process generally triggered and accompanied by “anarchic” forms of internal violence.

Dr. Thürer wrote that former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, described this situation in the following way (emphasis added):

    A feature of such conflicts is the collapse of state institutions, especially the police and judiciary, with resulting paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order, and general banditry and chaos. Not only are the functions of government suspended, but its assets are destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country. This is rarely the case in inter-state wars. It means that international intervention must extend beyond military and humanitarian tasks and must include the promotion of international reconciliation and the re-establishment of effective government. States in which institutions and law and order have totally or partially collapsed under the pressure and amidst the confusion of erupting violence, yet which subsist as a ghostly presence on the world map, are now commonly referred to as “failed States” or “Etats sans gouvernement”.

Jay Fraser, who has been watching developments in Mexico for some time, drills down on the most violent and fastest evolving faction among the cartel groups in Mexico. Procrustes concentrates on the “Failed State” concept and examines how conditions in Mexico compare to academic yardsticks and the case studies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that inevitably crop up in discussions of failed and failing states.

          COUNTERPOINT – Mexico is not a failing state or has greater resilience than experts are acknowledging:

Apropos Two Theories – Why Mexico may NOT fall apart – and a way to think about it

I’ve never seen so many American analysts and journalists sounding alarms about Mexico – most for good reasons, others for their own agendas. And it’s true, parts of Mexico have turned awfully violent, barely governable. Government controls have weakened, and security trends are adverse. Domestic terrorism and insurgency are not presently the problem; it’s the extreme crime and corruption, driven by the drug cartels and other criminal gangs.

….Yet, I’m struck that long-time American experts who specialize on Mexico are not providing counter-arguments. A few Mexicans are, lately Enrique Krauze. But no Americans I know of (though I’ve not searched exhaustively).Shouldn’t analysts and journalists who specialize on Mexico be doing a better job of wondering whether and why the growing alarmism may be wrong – again?When I worked as a specialist on Mexico, I experienced three or four periods when Mexico seemed to be on the verge of instability, in particular:

  • In 1968, at the time of the student uprising and its military suppression (I was then a graduate student studying in Mexico City).
  • During 1984-8, when a few U.S. government analysts claimed that Mexico was about to collapse due to multiple economic, political, and other crises.
  • In 1994-5, when the Zapatista uprising raised new specters of widespread insurgency, if not terrorism.

Each time Mexico remained stable and recovered. And it did so mostly for reasons that American analysts had not understood or anticipated well at the time – including American experts on Mexico who did not buy into the alarmism.In these three instances, the key stabilizing factor turned out to be some kind of social or organizational network that American analysts were barely aware of:

  • In 1968, it was intra-elite networking that revolved around the mysterious camarilla system (or so I think, though I was just a grad student then).
  • In the mid 1980s, it was familial and other social networks that cushioned the effects of unemployment and other economic displacements.
  • In 1994, it was the roles played by newly-formed networks of human-rights and other activist NGOs, first in calming the Zapatista scene, later in monitoring the 1994 presidential election campaign.

Conditions in Mexico look worse than ever this time around – much worse, not just along the U.S. border, but everywhere that the drug cartels are powerful. So I’m not suggesting optimism, but rather a search for additional factors that may moderate the equations of gloom.What might keep Mexico from disintegrating this time? My guesstimate is that networks will be the decisive factor again. And the networks that will matter most this time are:

  1. Informal intra-elite social networks that reflects what’s left of the old camarilla dynamic.
  2. Cross-border organizational networks for U.S.-Mexico security (military, police, intel) cooperation

David Ronfeldt, for new readers here, is a major “edge” thinker in the national security field at RAND and is a co-author (with John Arquilla) of the influential “classic”,  Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy , which sits on my shelf about two feet from me as I type this. As it happens, Ronfeldt also specialized in Mexican and Latin American security as an analyst during the Cold War which gives means that his caveats are worth careful consideration. Frankly, we are all better off if Ronfeldt is correct and the “alarmists” are wrong, though I think the grim state of affairs south of the Rio Grande is deterring most Mexico experts  from going out on a limb to make positive predictions.

A Mexican Standoff with Reality

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC –  Flanked by the embattled President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon and the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, a weary looking President Barack Obama used a press conference to angrily denounce as “Alarmist and inflammatory” a recent report issued by the conservative Heritage Foundation that declared the massive chain of UN administered Mexican Refugee camps in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as “a bottomless well for narco-insurgency” and “a threat to the territorial integrity of the United States”. The camps, home to at least 2.5 million Mexican nationals, are dominated by the “Zetas Confederales”, a loose and ultraviolent umbrella militia aligned with the feuding Mexican drug cartels that now control upwards of 80 % of Mexico.

President Obama’s political fortunes have been reeling recently in the wake of high profile incidents that include the kidnapping of his Special Envoy for Transborder Issues, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and the car bombing assassination of popular California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that killed 353 people in Sacramento last month. Both events have been tied directly to factions of Zetas “hardliners” who operate with impunity on both sides of the US-Mexican border. President Obama used the conference to point to the “clear and hold” COIN strategy that has recently restored order and even a degree of tourism to Las Vegas, once the scene of bloody street battles between Zetas, local street gangs and  right-wing American paramilitary groups, as a sign of the success for his administration.  Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill remain skeptical and say that it is likely that President Obama will face a primary challenge next year from Senator Jim Webb (D- Va), a former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, who called the president’s COIN strategy “The right course of action” but ” Two years too late”….

That fictional scenario above is offered as a thought experiment.

Thursday, in a statement that was issued in part for public diplomacy purposes, DNI Adm. Dennis Blair, dismissed any strategic implications regarding the strength of Mexico’s drug cartels that the Mexican government is struggling to suppress:

Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. [Let me] repeat that. Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The violence we see now is the result of Mexico taking action against the drug cartels. So it is in fact the result of positive moves, which the Mexican government has taken to break the baneful influence that many of these cartels have had on many aspects of Mexican government and Mexican life.

While it might be tempting to ask what the good Admiral is smoking, Blair is neither a naif nor a fool but a very experienced and saavy intelligence manager who is engaged in pushing a political line of the Obama administration, in deference to the wishes of the government of Mexico. The line is being peddled on many fronts; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has just declined offers for increased appropriations for improving border security in favor of “surging” Federal agents on a temporary basis (i.e. a political show that will accomplish nothing). Here is SECSTATE Hillary Clinton on the same subject on the same day as Adm. Blair while on an official visit to Mexico:

On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton noted that no official of the Obama administration had ever used the phrase “failed state.” She said Mexico faced a “public safety challenge,” likening it to the surge of drug violence in American cities in the 1980s. And she lavished praise on the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, for taking strong measures against the drug cartels.

This line that Mexico is fundamentally sound, while helpful to President Calderon’s political standing when expressed in public, is analytically speaking, sheer nonsense, and if enforced in private, counterproductive to having sober USG interagency planning sessions to make certain that worst case scenarios, like the one imagined above, never come close to materializing. Such politicized groupthink also interferes with effective cooperation with Mexico to address a 4GW type problem that has already mestastasized to a dangerous degree into American territory. Earlier, while still free of Mexican diplomatic and political pressure, the U.S. military accurately assessed the potential threat of Mexico devolving into a failed state in this JFCOM planning document (we won’t be seeing anything like this in public again, barring leaks):

In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.

….The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.

Banning terminology like “failed state” or admission of adverse data points from Mexico or the Southwestern U.S. (!) into an integrated analytical picture because the self-absorbed and greedy oligarchy that rules Mexico heatedly objects, is a recipe for policy failure and “snowballing” interrelated problems as each new development is inadequately addressed for political reasons. This new eggshell to tread carefully upon is going to be added to our longstanding, politically determined, refusal to contemplate our own drug policy honestly in light of it’s effect on our national security interests (We are turbocharging guerillas, Islamist insurgents, terrorists and criminal networks all over the globe with billions of American narco-dollars and corrupting and demoralizing our own allies in the process).

If the current situation in Mexico existed anywhere else in the world, our national security elite would already be discussing the potential for a mass exodus of refugees at given levels of escalating violence. The United States government conceives of the border in terms of an economic immigration problem not as a political mass-migration problem; such an event, spilling over into the hot deserts of the American border states, would very likely overwhelm the capacity for adequate humanitarian response. A Katrina moment in the cacti.

Recall the difficulties the Carter administration had with the relatively minor refugee influx in 1980 known as the Mariel Boatlift when 120,000 Cubans were permitted by Fidel Castro to flee the Communist paradise for life in the United States, along with imprisoned criminals and mental patients whom Castro deported along with the boatlift. A full blown civil war in Mexico could generate 20 to 30 times that number of refugees, among whom narco-guerillas or terrorists or independent bad actors could operate freely, much as refugee camps elsewhere in the world have been breeding grounds for militias, criminal organizations and terrorists.

SECSTATE Clinton, at least, should know all of this very well. The handling of the Marielitos issue by Jimmy Carter probably cost her husband the governorship in Arkansas and led him later as President to enforce a very tough line against Haitian refugees, fearing a deluge of desperately poor Haitians fleeing dictatorship and internecine political violence. It would be far better to prioritize Mexico as a national security issue today, than let it evolve into a transnational powder keg tomorrow. There are, I must observe, far more Mexicans than Haitians in this hemisphere.

But proper response requires empirical investigation and analytical clarity, followed by sensible and determined policy designed to short-circuit negative trends, not empty political assertions designed to tread water, obfuscate and delay action. We have time, but not unlimited time.

(Special thanks to Morgan, Pundita and John Robb for their insights, concerns and/or suggested links yesterday on this issue which were helpful in clarifying my thoughts).


State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Full PDF Article)   Stratfor reports on Mexico, news ignored by our mainstream media

Latest Academic Mexico Trip Report    “Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State?”    Mexico’s Instability Is a Real Problem

Mexico – Failed State/Failed Policies?   Among top U.S. fears: A failed Mexican state  Why Vicente Fox is going straight to Hell 

MEXICO’S BAZAAR OF VIOLENCE   What if A State Failed and Nobody Cared?   American Narcotics: $10 Billion In Mexico

Mexico: Growing Terror and Close to Collapse    The effects of our drug war in Mexico

Mexico is not a poor country   Assessing the threat at our southern border    Mexico’s Columbian Exchange    State of War

 Look who’s sneaking into the country using known drug routes   Mexico plagued by myriad interlaced netwars – a TIMN analysis

SWC Thread (Slapout) w/ Links    Mexico’s Struggle with ‘Drugs and Thugs’ (Full PDF Article) 

Sites Linking to this Post:

Soob Top shelf analysis of Mexico’s civil war and the looming cross border nightmare NEW!

Newshoggers.com (Hynd) – Is Mexico A National Security Threat? NEW!

TDAXP Recommended Reading  NEW!

Fausta’s Blog The “Who painted it?” Carnival of Latin America and the Caribbean 

RBO – Zenpundit: A Mexican Standoff with Reality 

MountainRunner It sure is quiet around here… a few links and musings during the silence 

Threatswatch.org (Schippert) – Exposición Perro y Caballo de la Administración Obama 

John Brown’s Public Diplomacy – March 30 

Peace Like a River – Cables, dispatches and memoranda 

SWJ BLog A Mexican Standoff with Reality…

Committe of Public SafetyCartel War Zen

PunditaWashington continues to plays ostrich about Mexico (Riehl World ViewViva la Revolucion ; Wretchard – Our Southern Neighbor)

HG’s WorldZenpundit Channels Orson Wells in War of the Narco-Cartels

Chicago BoyzA Mexican Standoff with Reality

More as they develop….

Off Line

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

I have various soccial activities this weekend plus a chapter to finish for an upcoming book on 5GW, edited by my amigo, the serendipitous Dan of TDAXP. As a result posting will probably not occur until Sunday.

Barnett in the House!

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Dr. Barnett made an important appearance today to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on the future of the U.S. Navy and the global strategic environment it faces:

Tom’s testimony today

I appear before the subcommittee today to provide my professional analysis of the current global security environment and future conflict trends, concentrating on how accurately–in my opinion–America’s naval services address both in their strategic vision and force-structure planning.  As has been the case throughout my two decades of working for, and with, the Department of Navy, current procurement plans portend a “train wreck” between desired fleet size and likely future budget levels dedicated to shipbuilding.  I am neither surprised nor dismayed by this current mismatch, for it reflects the inherent tension between the Department’s continuing desire to maintain some suitable portion of its legacy force and its more recent impulse toward adapting itself to the far more prosaic tasks of integrating globalization’s “frontier areas”–as I like to call them–as part of our nation’s decades-long effort to play bodyguard to the global economy’s advance, as well as defeat its enemies in the “long war against violent extremism” following 9/11.  Right now, this tension is mirrored throughout the Defense Department as a whole:  between what Secretary Gates has defined as the “next-war-itis” crowd (primarily Air Force and Navy) and those left with the ever-growing burdens of the long war–namely, the Army and Marines. 

….As someone who helped write the Department of Navy’s white paper, …From the Sea, in the early 1990s and has spent the last decade arguing that America’s grand strategy should center on fostering globalization’s advance, I greatly welcome the Department’s 2007 Maritime Strategic Concept that stated: 

    United State seapower will be globally postured to secure our homeland and citizens from direct attack and to advance our interests around the world.  As our security and prosperity are inextricably linked with those of others, U.S. maritime forces will be deployed to protect and sustain the peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance. 

Rather than merely focusing on whatever line-up of rogue powers constitutes today’s most pressing security threats, the Department’s strategic concept locates it operational center of gravity amidst the most pervasive and persistently revolutionary dynamics associated with globalization’s advance around the planet, for it is primarily in those frontier-like regions currently experiencing heightened levels of integration with the global economy (increasingly as the result of Asian economic activity, not Western) that we locate virtually all of the mass violence and instability in the system.   

Moreover, this strategic bias toward globalization’s Gap regions (e.g., a continuous posturing of “credible combat power” in the Western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean) and SysAdmin-style operations there makes eminent sense in a time horizon likely to witness the disappearance of the three major-war scenarios that currently justify our nation’s continued funding of our Leviathan force–namely, China-Taiwan, Iran, and North Korea.  First, the Taiwan scenario increasingly bleeds plausibility as that island state seeks a peace treaty with the mainland and proceeds in its course of economic integration with China.  Second, as Iran moves ever closer to achieving an A-to-Z nuclear weapon capability, America finds itself effectively deterred from major war with that regime (even as Israel will likely make a show–largely futile–of delaying this achievement through conventional strikes sometime in the next 12 months).  Meanwhile, the six-party talks on North Korea have effectively demystified any potential great-power war scenarios stemming from that regime’s eventual collapse, as America now focuses largely on the question of “loose nukes” and China fears only that Pyongyang’s political demise might reflect badly on continued “communist” rule in Beijing–hardly the makings of World War III. 

Read the rest here.

Tom has probably made the heads of many senior admirals explode today. Though, it must be said, this is unlikely to be the first time that has happened and everything Dr. Barnett said this morning was perfectly consistent with what he’s been saying and writing for years, as he made clear in his statement. It’s more where he was saying it and to whom. Coming down so hard in Congressional testimony in favor of expanding the Navy’s capacity at littoral operations at the expense of capital ship building and submarines is waving a red flag at the “Big War” crowd while executing a taunting, end-zone dance.

Ok, I exaggerated that last part, but from the text, Tom gave a very strong signal to the Committee as to where the Navy should be headed in coming years.


Evidently, Tom also caused the heads of committee members to explode as well. Galrahn was there at the hearing and had this anecdote:

My favorite moment was during Thomas Barnett’s opening statement, which I thought was really good. Dr. Barnett said something along the lines of “I want allies with million man armies and I want them to be ready to kill people,” which is strategically exactly right.

Well, what the audio and video won’t show is the reaction by Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D), who looked to me like she was about to either feint or have a heart attack when Barnett said that. It was a priceless moment of facial expressions as she struggled to cope with the idea he was expressing. Honestly, I’m still laughing writing about it here. It was only afterward I was reminded that she is co-sponsor in the creation of a new government organization.

The Department of Peace.

Good. The whole concept of a Department of Peace amounts to institutionalizing antiwar activists on the Federal payroll to try and obstruct foreign policy and erode national security for the benefit of unfriendly and undemocratic foreign states. If Bashir Assad and Hugo Chavez want foreign agents to lobby Congress, they can hire K Street lawyers like everyone else; we don’t need to have U.S. taxpayers footing the bill to promote far Left political causes.

Tom also weighed in on his blog on the experience:

Questions from members are extremely specific to their pet causes. I considered that exchange largely to be a showy waste of time.

Only sparks: I raise issue of Navy needing to accept more tactical risk if they want to influence events ashore more, referencing LCS. I get a small lecture about “sons and daughters” from Taylor. I refrain from mentioning my family members now in Iraq, considering that a counter-grandstanding move better avoided.

Instead, I counter with logic of Army-Marine COIN: you accept more risk when you get closer in–plain and simple. The Navy has already perfected its force structure in terms of largely rendering itself casualty-free and irrelevant to the long war, so it’s just a question of “whose sons and daughters” bear the brunt.

Taylor thanks me for a response he clearly had no expectation of triggering.

Then Thompson, who panders a grace bordering on the sublime (decrying costs in aggregate but praising individual systems and platforms), gets pissed when I downplay the intell capture argument offered by Seawolf sub proponents (Oh, to need $2.2B stealthy platforms to spy off Syria’s coast! His example, not mine). He laments that it’s too bad that the American public can’t truly know how value such collection is! This is the classic insider put down: If only you knew the secrets I know! Then you’d not dare to question my porkish logic!


That Was Fast

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Recently, discussing the media in the comment section here, Lexington Green had this to say:

Brilliant Shirkey piece.  He only leaves out one thing.  The dying incumbents are going to successfully seek money and protection from the government.  With a Democrat president and congress, their faithful allies, lickspittles, bootlickers, toadies, buttboys, catamites, lackeys also knows as “the media” will come to DC with palm extended, upright, demanding the payment that their partisan loyalty has earned.  They will get protection and money. 
They will not survive that much longer as a result.

In the same thread, democratic core remarked:

The Shirky piece raises fascinating issues.  The question of what the new economic model for journalism will be is interesting, and I appreciate the fact that this piece raises the question explicitly.  Contrary to Lexington’s comment, I doubt that there will be a government bailout, as the First Amendment issues would seem to make that unpalatable to both parties.  The non-profit approach is one logical evolution, where “newspapers”, i.e., centers of journalistic activites, get absorbed into non-profit institutions such as think tanks or universities to provide content to organs of information dissemination.  Another model might be the C-span model, where profitable internet organizations such as Google fund the entities we used to call “newspapers” in order to provide content for the web.  Most likely, you could have some combination of the two, as for example in the way that profit-making organizations subsidize research activities by non-profit institutions such as universities.

Now we have this. A remarkable turn-around time:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With many U.S. newspapers struggling to survive, a Democratic senator on Tuesday introduced a bill to help them by allowing newspaper companies to restructure as nonprofits with a variety of tax breaks.

“This may not be the optimal choice for some major newspapers or corporate media chains but it should be an option for many newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat,” said Senator Benjamin Cardin.

A Cardin spokesman said the bill had yet to attract any co-sponsors, but had sparked plenty of interest within the media, which has seen plunging revenues and many journalist layoffs.

Cardin’s Newspaper Revitalization Act would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies.

Under this arrangement, newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible.

Because newspaper profits have been falling in recent years, “no substantial loss of federal revenue” was expected under the legislation, Cardin’s office said in a statement.

Cardin’s office said his bill was aimed at preserving local and community newspapers, not conglomerates which may also own radio and TV stations. His bill would also let a non-profit buy newspapers owned by a conglomerate.

“We are losing our newspaper industry,” Cardin said. “The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.



Switch to our mobile site