Ruben Navarrette: War cries against Mexico summon ghosts from the past

From the commentary: Mexico is not our enemy. It's a friend, ally, trading partner and good neighbor. In fact, Americans don't realize how lucky we are that — unlike many other countries around the globe — we don't have a hostile country on our border.

A mariachi takes pictures with a mobile phone Tuesday at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to celebrate Santa Cecilia, patron of musicians in Mexico City, Mexico
A mariachi takes pictures with a mobile phone in this file photo at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to celebrate Santa Cecilia, patron of musicians in Mexico City, Mexico.
REUTERS/Carlos Jasso<br/>

SAN DIEGO — Are Americans ready to go to war with Mexico? Again?

Ruben Navarrete column logo
Ruben Navarrete column logo
Kit Grode / Tribune graphic
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Those are the drumbeats in some quarters after four Americans were kidnapped and two were killed this month in Matamoros, allegedly by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

The Gulf Cartel has apologized and handed over five individuals who it claims were responsible for what appears to have been a case of mistaken identity, authorities said.

The war cries are coming from what I call the "White-fright right." Some conservatives have built entire political careers by stoking the fears and anxieties of White Americans toward Mexico. These charlatans teach people on this side of the border to see Mexicans as menacing, and then they offer themselves as saviors.

Among those eager to blow up U.S.-Mexico relations are three saber-rattling Republicans: former attorney general William Barr, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas.


— In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Barr called Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador the "chief enabler" of the cartels, which he described as "narco-terrorist groups" that are "more like ISIS [the Islamic State] than like the American mafia." Barr insisted that the only way to defeat the cartels was to "use every tool at our disposal inside Mexico."

— Appearing on Fox News, Graham warned Mexico: "If you continue to give safe haven to fentanyl drug traffickers, then you're an enemy of the United States." Graham also promised to introduce legislation to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and "set the stage to use military force if necessary to protect America from being poisoned by things coming out of Mexico."

— Crenshaw has already introduced legislation that would allow the U.S. military to take action against Mexican criminal organizations, and he invited López Obrador to partner with the United States in targeting the drug syndicates. When the Mexican president rebuffed the offer, Crenshaw responded with an online video addressed to López Obrador in which he asked, "Why do you protect the cartels?"

Republicans have been playing this cynical game since the 1990s. Back then, the culprits included commentator Pat Buchanan, longtime congressman Dana Rohrabacher and then-California Gov. Pete Wilson. All of them used the immigration issue to scare up support from White people.

Then in June 2015, Donald Trump launched his first run for the White House. He fueled it with a gratuitous attack on Mexico, which he accused of "sending people that have lots of problems." He said of Mexicans: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

Republicans have long been comfortable treating Mexico like a piñata. Of course, threatening war is a whole other matter.

The last time the countries were at war, from 1846 to 1848, the motivation was Manifest Destiny, the objective was a land grab, and the result was Mexico handing over 55% of its territory with a gun to its head after U.S. troops marched all the way to Mexico City.

If Gov. Ron DeSantis were alive back then, he might have shrugged off the U.S. invasion as a mere "territorial dispute," as the Florida Republican did recently when referencing Russia's assault on Ukraine.


The pilfered land would become the U.S. Southwest and included what's now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and portions of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico. And after a series of bloody battles — including, it's worth remembering, a famous one at the Alamo mission in San Antonio — the "Texians" operated as their own republic for several years before joining the union as the 28th state in 1845.

The new war with Mexico that Republicans are clamoring for — directly or indirectly — won't be about land. It'll be about ego, pride and machismo, on both sides of the border.

In response to the jingoism in some corners of the Republican Party, the Mexican president has asserted his nation's sovereignty.

"We are not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government's armed forces intervene," López Obrador said recently. Mexico, he declared, is not "a colony of the United States."

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He's right. Good for him. Mexico is not our enemy. It's a friend, ally, trading partner and good neighbor. In fact, Americans don't realize how lucky we are that — unlike many other countries around the globe — we don't have a hostile country on our border.

If Republicans don't hold their tongues and mind their manners, that could change.


This commentary is Ruben Navarrette's opinion. He can be reached at

© 2022, The Washington Post Writers Group


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