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The Fun and Folly of Attack Politics

May 11, 1997|Sidney Weintraub | Sidney Weintraub holds the William Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of "NAFTA at Three: A Progress Report" (CSIS)

WASHINGTON — U.S. policy toward Mexico has been buffeted by two diametrically opposed views on how Washington can best obtain maximum action from Mexico City on the fight against narcotics trafficking. President Bill Clinton's visit to Mexico last week again brought a version of the clash out in the open.

Essentially, one side contends that ultimatums are the best stimulant: Unless Mexico extradites most or all its drug lords accused of trafficking by U.S. prosecutors, and permits American drug agents to carry sidearms while on duty in Mexico, U.S. support for loans to Mexico should cease. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is closely identified with this view.

The other side insists that seeking cooperation through threats will not work, because Mexico is ultrasensitive to any perceived infringement of its sovereignty in its U.S. relations. This is the Clinton administration's view, which prevailed in the drug-certification battle.

This difference in approaches plays out in many areas. Should senior U.S. officials openly attack Mexico for its corruption or instead seek precise ways to overcome particular problems by closer cooperation in, say, detecting money laundering?

U.S. legislators cannot be held to the same restrictions as administration officials. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) recently attacked the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for its long, authoritarian rule, then said that just about any other party would be better. But his outburst came at the time when the PRI was conceding state and municipal elections to its main opposition. Opinion polls in Mexico show that the more U.S. politicians attack the PRI, the more support they drum up for the party.

Many U.S. attacks are motivated by domestic U.S. politics. This was evident in the anti-immigrant, anti-trade position of Patrick J. Buchanan as he sought the Republican nomination for president. Gov. Pete Wilson surely had his gubernatorial campaign in mind when he supported Proposition 187, which denies public services, including education, to Mexican and other immigrants illegally in California. But to give these politicians some due, attacks sometimes work. Colombia did more to go after narcotics traffickers after the country was decertified than it did previously. Mexico agreed to discuss migration issues only after the U.S. made clear it would act forcefully to prevent illegal border crossings.

Yet, for anyone familiar with the contentious U.S.-Mexican history, it strains credulity to believe that any Mexican president would cave in to U.S. demands in the face of what its population considers blackmail. President Ernesto Zedillo needs no reminding that the violence and corruption associated with the drug trade has the potential to destroy Mexico's social fabric. He has said as much, over and over again, from day one. He also knows he made an egregious error in the appointment of his drug czar. He can act to rectify his errors if this is seen as being in the Mexican national interest. He could not survive as a viable leader if he were seen as taking these actions in order to mollify some domestic U.S. concern.

During his visit to Mexico, Clinton took the approach that a public demonstration of friendship would be more effective in obtaining cooperation than bitter public denunciations. He conceded, for example, that the narcotics problem has two facets, the large U.S. demand and the ability of traffickers to supply the craving. The governments reached agreements to deal with money laundering and gun running from the U.S. to Mexico. While insisting that the U.S. has the right and obligation to act against illegal immigration, Clinton acceded to Mexico's point that the human rights of migrants, legal or otherwise, must be respected. The agreements are largely symbolic. More germane is whether they'll stimulate more constructive Mexican responses than open attacks.

Clinton probably should brace himself for denunciations at home from political opponents in both parties who insist that he should have gone to Mexico as a lion, but instead behaved like a kitten. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) already has asserted that drug certification granted to Mexico should be put on a short leash and if no progress is evident in a few months, punitive congressional action should follow. Weeks earlier, he said that the rationale of certification should be reexamined because of its ineffectiveness as a drug-fighting tool. He is playing this both ways.

But this is Gingrich talking, not the president of the United States. Had Clinton taken the short-leash approach to the narcotics issue, the internal Mexican political reaction probably would have forced Zedillo to insist on the withdrawal of all agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and to shut off the extensive dialogue that now takes place on this issue. There is evidence that Mexican authorities looked the other way when DEA agents carried firearms even

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