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The U.S. needs to unmix the message in Mexico

When Hillary Clinton visits the country, she needs to clearly state what Washington wants and what it will do.

March 23, 2009|Denise Dresser | Denise Dresser, a contributing writer to Opinion, is a columnist for the newspaper Reforma and a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

WRITING FROM MEXICO CITY — As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares for her trip this week to Mexico, she needs to pack not only goodwill but a consistent U.S. position.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow has compared Mexico to a porcupine because of the country's prickly nationalism, and right now its worst symptoms are on full display. After weeks of U.S. congressional hearings on Mexico's drug-related violence and front-page news stories focused on its many ills, the country is feeling badgered and bruised. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has even suggested that a concerted effort to discredit Mexico is taking place in the United States.

Mexico's quills are standing straight up, and Clinton will need to placate Mexicans with a good dose of public diplomacy. The best way to accomplish this goal would be to arrive with what has been lacking so far: a clear, unified message from the Obama administration regarding the sort of relationship it wants with Mexico.

Undoubtedly, Mexico's crime-related problems have become a focus of attention among lawmakers, law enforcement and the media in the United States. Over the last several months, there have been more than six congressional hearings, a segment on "60 Minutes" and numerous public statements made by key people in the U.S. intelligence community stressing Mexico's plight. Although this sort of attention is welcome -- given the seriousness of the problems -- a panoply of inconsistent, disjointed, contradictory stances has generated ill will south of the border.

Mexico doesn't know whether it should pay more attention to those who advocate militarizing the border or to those -- like President Obama -- who have come out against it. Mexico doesn't know whether the United States will make a concerted effort to stem the illegal smuggling of guns into its territory, or whether the "right to bear arms" argument will shelve that issue. Mexico doesn't understand if it's being bashed in order to generate congressional support for further aid and deeper collaboration, or if recent criticism is just political posturing by those who would welcome a bigger wall between the two countries. Members of the U.S. government talk about the need for a "new paradigm" in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, but then lop off $150 million from the Merida Initiative, which is designed to enhance military cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Members of the Obama team talk about a "strategic partnership," but then Congress ends a demonstration project to allow some Mexican trucks onto American highways, as required under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico then retaliates by placing tariffs on 90 goods affecting $2.4 billion in U.S. trade.

And so the binational bickering goes on, while the Mexican porcupine moves into attack position.

Clinton needs to set the record straight and tell both the Mexican government and the Mexican people what the U.S. wants, what it is prepared to do and what it expects in return. The current void is being filled in a way that doesn't bode well for joint solutions to shared problems. July's midterm elections in Mexico are pushing Calderon to adopt knee-jerk nationalistic stances, because nothing unites Mexicans more than a good dose of anti-Americanism. And in the U.S., the message vis-a-vis Mexico is often dominated by Republican hard-liners who would like to turn the border into the next political battleground.

But beyond issues of wounded pride south of the Rio Grande and gung-ho stances north of it, Mexico and the U.S. face a critical situation. As Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard said in a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs: "We are not winning the battle." U.S. efforts to help Mexico deal with drug trafficking and organized crime networks are not enough, and the problem is spilling over into American cities and streets, where consumption continues unabated.

Clinton should view the crisis as an opportunity to reframe the relationship and espouse the language of commitment and co-responsibility. She should understand, as Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has suggested, that Mexico does not have a monopoly on drugs, bribes or corruption. And although Mexico has plenty to be criticized for, U.S. demand for drugs simply aggravates its neighbor's preexisting institutional flaws and weaknesses.

Clinton undoubtedly will be greeted with open arms in Mexico if, among the things she brings with her, are a recognition of U.S. responsibilities; a willingness to reduce drug consumption at home; a commitment to disrupt financial flows and money-laundering that explain why Mexican drug chieftain Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is on the Forbes list of the world's richest people; a promise to limit the flow of high-caliber weapons across the border; and a disposition to accompany drug interdiction with a more comprehensive approach.

The secretary of State has proved to be a nimble and effective diplomat; the challenge for her in Mexico is to turn a defensive, resentful porcupine into a collaborative partner.

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