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On Point

Machiavelli, Joint Forces Command and Mexico


by Austin Bay
January 20, 2009

Mexico's foreign minister objects -- and she's right.

"Mexico is not a failed state," Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said this week, responding to sensationalized headlines that suggested the "The Joint Operating Environment (JOE)" study (published in November 2008) by U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) was predicting Mexico's collapse.

The study was not a prediction. JFCOM made that explicit: "This document is speculative in nature and does not suppose to predict what will happen ... "

But fear sells. Sensationalists latched onto the comments in the document that cited Pakistan and Mexico worst-case "rapid collapse" scenarios, which -- if they occurred -- would damage U.S. interests. Fearmongers missed (or ignored) the scenarios, which were "what ifs?" designed to spur creative planning and policies that would avoid them altogether.

JFCOM's planners were merely doing their job. "Worst-case scenarios" provide fodder for war-gaming and planning "excursions." This intellectual preparation may or may not have organizational and technological consequences, but the intellectual exploration has value. Classicists understand.

In Chapter 14 of "The Prince," Machiavelli writes of "Philopoemen, the leader of the Achaeans" who was "praised by the historians for ... having in peacetime never thought of anything else except military strategy." As he traveled he would "invite discussion" from his friends -- likely the men who would be his subordinate commanders in wartime. They would speculate on how they might defend a hill they were passing, maneuver in the terrain for advantage or even retreat. Machiavelli writes: "Because of these continuous speculations," Philopoemen "knew how to cope with all and every emergency."

Philopoemen, however, didn't have to deal with instantaneous, global selective quotation and hype.

No doubt a Mexican collapse would have huge effects on the U.S.; so would a collapse of Canada, which has also been war-gamed. In the latest edition of "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War" (fourth edition, Paladin Press), James F. Dunnigan and I revisit a "Canadian collapse" scenario first war-gamed in 1990. It is an analytic exercise speculating on the consequences of Quebec separating from the rest of Canada.

Any direct comparison between Mexico and Pakistan is a huge stretch. Pakistan is failing, and it isn't clear that the central government has the power or political will to address fundamental ethnic, economic, demographic and ideological challenges. Mexico is a threatened state, but the country has political will to confront the threats posed by violent drug cartels and its own legacy of corrupt politics. President Felipe Calderon made that quite evident when he launched The Cartel War in December 2006. Even accounting for Chiapas (Maya land) and numerous wannabe separatists, Mexico also has money, education and a comparative political-social coherence the entirety of South and Central Asia should envy.

Gen. (retired) Barry McCaffrey's recent report to the West Point social sciences department on Mexico (memo dated Dec. 29, 2008) praises the Mexican government's will to act decisively and provides sound advice to U.S. policymakers: "Now is the time during the opening months of a new U.S. administration to jointly commit to a fully resourced major partnership as political equals of the Mexican government Specifically, we must support the government of Mexico's efforts to confront the ultra violent drug cartels. We must do so in ways that are acceptable to the Mexican polity and that take into account Mexican sensitivities to sovereignty. The U.S. government cannot impose a solution. The political will is present in Mexico to make the tough decisions that are required to confront a severe menace to the rule of law and the authority of the Mexican state."

McCaffrey's report also noted: "President Calderon has committed his government to the "Limpiemos Mexico" campaign to "clean up Mexico." This is not rhetoric. They have energized their departments of social development, public education and health to be integral parts of this campaign. Finally, there is a clear understanding that this is an eight-year campaign -- not a short-term surge."

The Mexican people are fighting a war for modernity -- it is a long war, but it is a war they are winning.

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