Commentary: Second guessing concerning Calderon's war in Mexico
SAN DIEGO -- The dust-up with Israel has some folks wondering if the Obama administration is going out of its way to be unfriendly to America's friends.
Add Mexico to the list. How galling it must be for Mexican President Felipe Calderon -- who is locked in a bloody war with drug cartels that are bankrolled by the consumption habits of Americans and armed with guns smuggled to Mexico from the United States -- to now have to put up with Monday-morning quarterbacking from a top U.S. official over how the war is fought.
Calderon has gone "all in" against the cartels. In doing so, he hasn't just mortgaged his presidency; he has also gambled the future of his National Action Party, or PAN.
In a recent poll by the Mexican newspaper The Milenio, 59 percent of respondents said the drug traffickers are winning the war, compared with 21 percent who said the government is coming out on top.
Mexicans loathe this war. So much so that, according to polls, they're prepared to do something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago -- give the presidency back to the corrupt and discredited Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which is seen as more likely to broker a peace with the cartels.
Why not just serve up the whole country to these jackals? With so much bloodshed -- at least 18,000 Mexicans have died -- and so much at stake, the drug war is not a topic that people take lightly or talk about glibly.
For that, we have Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who the record shows has the gift of gaffe.
Claimed some 9/11 hijackers entered the United States by coming "across the Canadian border"? Check. Refused to apologize for a DHS report warning about right-wing extremists other than to say the report was "not well written"? Check. Claimed during a CNN interview that crossing the border without authorization is "not a crime per se"? Check. Said, after an attempt to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day was thwarted, no thanks to Homeland Security, that "the system worked"? Check.
More recently, during an interview on MSNBC, Napolitano responded to the slaying of three officials with the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez by challenging the effectiveness of the Mexican government's No. 1 weapon against the cartels: the military.
"President Calderon of Mexico has been deeply involved, even sending in the military into Juarez," Napolitano said. "That hasn't helped."
Mexican officials came unglued. They rattled off instances where Mexican soldiers and Marines took down major drug cartel leaders, and suggested that the government has no choice but to use the military when local police are corrupt or otherwise compromised.
That's the key point. Calderon is using the only tool he has, and he has a right not to be second-guessed by his strongest ally.
Not that the Mexican military is above criticism. It's catching plenty at the moment given that Mexican soldiers accidentally killed two students at a university in Monterrey -- Jorge Antonio Mercado Alonso, 23, and Javier Francisco Arredondo Verdugo, 24 -- after drug dealers ducked onto campus to avoid capture. Government officials compounded that error by erroneously claiming that the victims were drug gang members when they were actually mechanical engineering students.
The guilty parties must be punished. And Mexicans should keep asking whether using the military in what is a giant police operation doesn't create more problems than it solves. But those are questions for Mexicans to settle.
Napolitano should stay out of it, especially if she doesn't have anything more substantial to offer than off-the-cuff comments.
Of course, the military hasn't won the war or gotten rid of all the drug traffickers. But it has made their lives miserable by taking down the chieftains, confiscating cash and drugs, and closing off delivery routes.
The United States has pledged $1.4 billion in aid and equipment to help Calderon fight the cartels. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently traveled to Mexico City with a delegation of senior administration officials to grant even more help -- perhaps as much as another $310 million. All this proves that the United States is making a serious commitment to Mexico's drug war. The Obama administration needs for all of its top officials to exhibit a similar degree of seriousness.
Secretary Napolitano, you're not helping.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.