The Follies of “Mission Accomplished”

Misión cumplida: lo tenemos,” dispatched Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto over Twitter on January 8, 2016. “Mission accomplished: we have him.” Mexican Marines had just captured Joaquín Guzmán-Loera, or El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader and world’s largest narcotics distributor. Requisite congratulations to his cabinet followed.

The statement mirrored another infamous exultation: U.S. President George W. Bush celebrating Saddam Hussein’s fall on the USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” banner visible behind his podium on May 1, 2003. Eight years and one day later, President Barack Obama announced the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although careful not to declare final victory, Obama’s subsequent rhetoric and ensuing policies made it clear he saw the bin Laden raid as an “achievement” that would justify an American military drawdown.

Bush, Obama, and Peña Nieto all shared an obsession with defeating a specific enemy, and the manner and tone which each presented a seemingly conclusive moment demonstrates a misguided belief in handling modern conflict. No nation can protect and serve its citizenry by telling its people that disarming, detaining, or defeating a singular foe constitutes an effective strategy. Trumpeting tactical actions as terminal successes highlights a state’s weakness, and is a harbinger for intellectual paralysis and policy failure.

When former President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, his advisors had hoped to conjure a scene reminiscent of General Douglas MacArthur’s acceptance of Japan’s surrender on the USS Missouri that ended World War II. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” Bush said during his speech. Almost six bloody years later, he struck a different tone. “Putting ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” Bush said in January 2009, reflecting days before departing the Oval Office.

Although Obama was careful to avoid repeating Bush’s mistake in his remarks announcing Osama bin Laden’s death as a conclusive moment, his 2012 presidential campaign positioned the bin Laden raid as the definitive justification for declaring a premature end to war in Iraq. “The tide of war is receding,” Obama inaccurately forecasted in October 2011. “The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership—including Osama bin Laden.”

Two years later, President Obama contrasted bin Laden with the nascent Islamic State, comparing the latter to a junior varsity basketball team. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden…versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles,” Obama said in January 2014. His comments bizarrely echoed former Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2005 description of Iraq’s insurgency as “in its last throes.” Since the President’s assessment, ISIS attackers have struck Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, Tripoli, Copenhagen, Tunis, Sana’a, Kuwait City, Cairo, a French train from Amsterdam, Ankara, a Russian airplane over Egypt, Beirut, Paris (again), Tunis (again), San Bernardino, and, most recently, Istanbul. Despite Obama’s desire for tidy victory, Islamic State clearly has “the capacity and reach of a bin Laden.” Unlike former President Bush, Obama has yet to repudiate his strategic blunder.

Which brings us back to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who proclaimed El Chapo’s capture as “a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States, and a vindication of the rule of law in our countries.” In February 2010, when I was last in Sinaloa, then-President Felipe Calderón was pursuing the cartel leader just as aggressively, and with just as much public fanfare. In Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacán, street artists caricatured Calderón as a clown (see the picture above), mocking his war against the cartels as a circus. As social media comments attest, Mexicans—especially Sinaloans—see El Chapo’s arrest as a similar farce.

The American and Mexican governments have congratulated themselves over the successful manhunt in northern Mexico. Policy wonks and scholars alike claim Mexico is on the verge of a mythical turning point, comparing its prospective law-abiding future with Colombia’s decrease in violence following Pablo Escobar’s capture. But Mexico has permanent geographic advantages for illicit distribution that Colombia never offered, and the Sinaloa Cartel’s asymmetric success against the Mexican military suggests the drug lords are far from their last throes. “Drug trafficking does not depend on one person,” accurately noted El Chapo, in his widely reported interview with Sean Penn. “It depends on a lot of people. If there were no consumption, there would be no sales.” Capturing Chicago crime boss Al Capone in March 1929 did not end violence from alcohol prohibition. Repealing the ban in December 1933 did.

The recurring folly of presidents announcing a completed mission after capturing an organizational kingpin evolves from the flawed view that national governments can wield authority over non-state entities as if they were linear structures. From tragic narcotics demand to repugnant religious zeal, human desires fuel actions that override legal and political authorities. Capturing or killing a single person (or regime) offers the illusion of instant success, while simultaneously positioning a leader to avoid responsibility for the aftermath.

Foreign policy successes involving ideas and motivations from nonlinear realms of human experience inevitably take time and patience to achieve. Offering tactical victories to the citizenry as cause for celebration or strategic justification insults the intelligence of all adults who know better. People of myriad races and cultures have gone to great lengths to chemically alter their brains for centuries. Religious sacrifice has fueled millions of violent supplicants for millennia. Suggesting policies can hinge on a single leader’s fate affronts the intuitive truth all of us know: the human condition is much more complex than one person’s rise or fall.

David Danelo, FPRI’s Director of Field Research, is the author of The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide and the FPRI E-Book Toward a U.S.-Mexico Security Strategy: The Geopolitics of Northern Mexico and the Implications for U.S. Policy.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Field Notes: Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

I last saw Nuevo Laredo in late 2010, around 9pm on a humid autumn evening. I had just walked off a bus after a three hour ride from Monterrey, northern Mexico’s industrial and financial capital. For much of the previous two years, I had traveled through Mexico’s six northern states, researching the region’s geopolitics.  I traveled alone, and shoe leather worked best inside cities. The sights and smells made walking more interesting. Renting a car?  With bloqueos interrupting traffic whenever the cartels saw fit, only a fool would drive alone.  Busses were ideal for long transportation. Taxis covered everything in the middle.

At the Nuevo Laredo bus station, vehicles swarmed for preferred or prescheduled cargo.  Three squads of Mexican soldiers, tan ski masks pulled tight, snatched up four of their comrades in civilian clothes.  They had traveled with me on the bus, probably returning as a group from a few days leave to discourage kidnapping.  One was clearly in charge; most likely a senior sergeant.  Two were junior soldiers who carried Nextel phone/walkie-talkies, which squawked with news of a skirmish on the city outskirts.  The other soldier slept.  All four appeared oblivious to my presence.

My taxi driver drove fast, whizzing alongside military Humvees.  Police on every street corner brandished the FX-05 Xiuhcoatl Mexican assault rifle.  According to the cabbie, the Mexican Army soldiers had killed eight Zeta sicarios.  Nuevo Laredo was awash with rumors like that, but it was impossible to tell how many were true.  The violence was indiscriminate enough to make anything possible.  Media outlets received anonymous phone calls informing them of murders they were never allowed to mention.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, had died or disappeared.  The latter was the same as the former.

The driver could not explain to me exactly what the Mexican military was trying to do in Nuevo Laredo.  The soldiers were certainly moving around with a sense of urgency.  Presumably, they were collecting intelligence; exploiting information; arresting or attacking targets.  But they seemed mostly to just be presenting a show of force; strutting like sculpted bodybuilders who looked good onstage but lacked functional muscle.  Their efforts were symbolized best by a humvee parked next to the Rio Grande, its 40mm grenade launcher locked and loaded.  What rules of engagement did the soldier have who was manning the turret gun?  Who exactly was he supposed to shoot at, since each round could never hit a pinpoint target?  What would a grenade explosion do for billions of dollars of trade legally streaming across the US-Mexico border?

With immigration reform leading President Obama’s legislative agenda, Americans are going through their periodic paroxysms over border security.  But as RAND’s Brian Michael Jenkins notes, both the United States and Mexico will likely downplay the drug violence and the cartel war in the coming year.  Like President Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has an ambitious domestic agenda, seeking to make his legacy on education and energy reform.  Also like Obama, Peña Nieto would prefer to declare victory quietly in his predecessor’s war, receiving political credit for the denouement of combat without suffering the political cost of its conduct.

So who will win in Nuevo Laredo?  Will the city ever return to its former tranquility, or are soldiers and police now a permanent fixture?  The Mexican government may declare victory, but only the cartels — who still control the monopoly of violence in Mexico — will have the final say.  Ironically, through their experiments with marijuana legalization, Americans may have a bigger and more enduring impact on Mexico’s drug war than the soldiers who patrolled Nuevo Laredo.  Whether it erodes or decreases the violence, U.S. state-level marijuana legalization will certainly have an impact.  We can only hope it’s more effective than the 40mm grenade launcher at reducing violence.

Tags: , ,