Zenpundit is discussing an interesting intellectual exercise on 4GW and Mexico. In this post he proposes a fictional scenario as a thought experiment, but everything in that scenario is built in response to this recent comment by DNI Adm. Dennis Blair, who dismisses any strategic implications regarding the strength of Mexico’s drug cartels that the Mexican government is struggling to suppress:

Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. [Let me] repeat that. Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The violence we see now is the result of Mexico taking action against the drug cartels. So it is in fact the result of positive moves, which the Mexican government has taken to break the baneful influence that many of these cartels have had on many aspects of Mexican government and Mexican life.

Zenpundit actually follows up his first debate with a point-counterpoint on whether Mexico is a failed state.

I for one tend to agree with DNI Blair that Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The rest of his commentary regarding the activities being observed in Mexico is certainly subject to debate, but I do not see evidence that the Mexican government is in danger of collapse, nor do I see evidence that the cartels are attempting to overthrow the government.

My point would be this: there is no value in the cartels overthrowing the Mexican government because its existence helps them more than its absence helps them.

But this is my larger point. There are currently zero, none, nada 4GW/COIN/Whatever military solutions for failed states; our emerging 4GW/COIN/Whatever doctrines, strategies, and theories only apply for weak states that have legitimate governments that can be supported. Failed states are problems that can be handled, even in an ugly way, by conventional military forces. The danger to US strategic interests is not failed states, as is often claimed, rather the real danger to US strategic interests always comes from weak states.

The ugly truth is, failed states allow for freedom of action by military forces without consequence; weak states do not allow such freedom of military action. Afghanistan before 9/11 was a weak state, not a failed state, thus Al Qaeda operated under the state governance of the Taliban and had top cover to carry out its evil agenda. In Somalia, pirates operate in a failed state, and as a failed state the west has taken military action, including cruise missiles, hostage rescue attempts with special forces, and other military activities without consequence against targets as they have been identified. The danger Somalia poses in the future to US strategic interests is not that Somalia continues as a failed state, rather if it were to become a weak state with a recognized legitimate government strong enough to say, eliminate the pirate threat while still being too weak to prevent the training and development of terrorist cells.

Another weak state would be Pakistan, which is strong enough to be legitimate with its nuclear arsenal, but too weak to remove the Taliban/Al Qaeda from its own borders. The same is true for Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed Iraq surviving as a weak state after it was a strong state under Saddam is the worst long term case scenario for that country, because it will require us to stay to stop the development of terrorist cells for a very long time.

Now look at Mexico in the same context. Mexico is a weak state, and in a weak state we find non-state and transitional actors like the cartels who operate with freedom, but because it is a weak state, we face serious and complex diplomatic obsticles in taking freedom of action, even along our own national border. In a failed state, we could do what needed to be done to take out the bad guys. As a weak state, we are far more limited in options, and must account for the legitimate governments perspective a lot more than we would if Mexico was a failed state.

Zenpundit may or may not be right regarding the threat posed by Mexico, but if he believes Mexico as a failed state is more dangerous than a Mexico as a weak state, he is mistaken. If the cartels take out the legitimate government, our options become clarified, not confused. It is with the presence of the government that limitations exist. Weak states is where COIN theory begins while failed states is where conventional military options begin. If we don’t get that right, we will be fighting a counterinsurgency on the behalf of no legitimate government, which last I checked, isn’t really a counterinsurgency at all but a competition for government control of territory. That may be a 4GW problem, but it doesn’t become a COIN solution until a legitimate government stands up.

Posted by galrahn in Foreign Policy

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  • Hi Galrahn

    Excellent post and a nice broadening of the discussion.

    I will have something up later in more detail but my quick response to your comments would be:

    Agree with you that that weak and failed states present different challenges and permit different policy responses by the USG or any state actor. Mexico is not yet a failed state, a situation that would best be avoided for the welfare of all concerned.

    Disagree with you that weak Mexico may be worse than failed Mexican state. We have to consider second order effects here – not to mention possible tipping points that could send Mexico in one direction or the other.

    Finally, I worry that when an 800 lb gorilla like Adm. Blair in his capacity as DNI lays down so heavy a public line, albeit for reasons of state, that so emphatic a position by a critical player in the IC inevitably, if unintentionally, corrupts the downstream analysis.

    If I was a mid-career, middle level manager in an intel bureaucracy, how would I react to pointed “bad news” from Mexico from a first line analyst that needs to be passed up the food chain? The temptation to put a smiley face on a pig before moving the report to the next level is going to be heavy.

    Again great post!

  • jwithington

    Galrahn, I wonder if you have any suggestions as to how to identify if/when Mexico becomes a failed state. Is it something brought about gradually or catastrophically?

  • I left the question mark off the title of this post… oh well.

    I would suggest when the government can clearly no longer function over the services throughout the entire state, that would be a sign of a failed state.

    As it is right now, the government of Mexico appears to be taking actions to address the problem. There appear to be internal challenges, but we have seen internal challenges of our own influence our ability to protect our side of the border, so who are we to judge at this point?

    The situation is fluid and complex.

  • RickWilmes

    Effect: Mexico is a weakened or failed state? I’ll let others decide if it is weakened has failed.

    Cause: The War on Drugs

    Solution: Legalize drugs. Any government that attempts to legislate morality will fail sooner or later. The proper role of government is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. One of those rights is to choose what one can and can not put into his body and either benefit or suffer the consequences.

  • meelash

    I wonder how you come about your definition of weak vs. strong state? Apparently Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a strong state, but the Taliban were a weak state? I would definitely question that classification. In the case of the Taliban and the ICU in Somalia prior to Ethiopian invasion, I would posit that these were both strong state but with opposing goals to the US’s interests. Osama bin Laden was there with the permission of the Taliban, not because they were incapable of expelling him.

  • Dee Illuminati

    excellent article

  • meelash,

    I guess I think of strong states as governments that control their borders and control security within their border without an internal political influence. I would argue, for example, that Al Qaeda had political influence with the Taliban, acting as an internal, but unique political force.

    For example, I see Syria and Iran as strong states, but Lebanon as a weak state. The IRGC is an extension of the government of Iran, while Hezbollah is an independent political force inside Lebanon, and while is politically connected to Syria has no direct political leverage over the government.

    So in the case of Iraq, while it is possible to link the Baath Party to Saddam as a political link, there is no evidence it has political control over Saddam, who had complete political control over Iraq prior to being overthrown.

    Weak states allow political forces to operate within a countries borders, and allowance may not be intentional. I would suggest that Columbia is a great example of a weak state.

  • jwithington

    “Monopoly on the use of force” as the definition of a weak state…I’m back to wondering what makes a failed state failed. If you don’t have this monopoly, aren’t you unable to perform services across the whole country?

  • RickWilmes

    In a word, statism, is what causes a state to fail. As Polybius and later John Adams, in his “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America”, has shown, monarchies will inevitably degenerate into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy and democracy into ochlocracy or anarchy.

    What is the cause of statism?

    The belief that the individual should be sacrificed to the state, the nation, society, etc. In other words, the more altruistic the state the weaker and more likely it will fail.

  • julian

    another imperialist comment from the country that took the half of Mexico. You ran away from the europeans and became in the same you hated, Imperialism

    Deal with your 7.5 million of drugadicts, you the example of democracy, where are the US law in Middle East (US my interest) anything and everything beyond that point should be dead or killed

  • Byron

    Wake up a little grouchy this morning, Julio? And FWIW, you can have California back 😉

  • julian

    Well my comment was rude and mean, I think a little more information about the Mexican Gov. strategy could help, the country is under control of the Government, the ppl that is dying are not regular citizens but all the guys (cops included) related to the drugs activities.

    Anyway, my apologies