The View From Olympus: Two Presidents, Both Wrong

The recent massacre in Mexico of nine American citizens, all women and children, by drug cartel gunmen elicited two very different reactions from the American and Mexican Presidents.  President Trump said, according to the November 9th Cleveland Plain Dealer,

The great new President of Mexico has made this a big issue, but the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army.  This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.

In contrast, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said,

It hurts a lot.  But are we going to want to solve the problem in the same way?  Declaring war? That, in the case of our country, has been shown not to work.  That was a failure, that caused more violence. . . 

If we understand Fourth Generation war, we know both Presidents are wrong, although both show some insight into the situation.

President Trump is correct that the Mexican drug cartels are large and powerful.  But he underestimates the degree. Some of them are now more powerful than the Mexican state.  They have more money than the state, they have a much faster OODA Loop than the state’s forces, and, in classic 4GW fashion, they have penetrated the state’s forces to the point where they control many of them, in large part by paying higher “salaries” than the states.  If Mexico declares war on the cartels, it will lose.

President Lopez Obrador is right that warring with the cartels has been shown not to work.  But he does not appear to see any alternative but his famous line, “Hugs, not gunshots,” which has also been shown not to work, as the nine dead Americans testify.  So what is to be done?

Obviously, the best answer is to stop the cartels before they grow more powerful than the states.  But it is too late for that, in Mexico, in much of Central America, and around the world where many types of 4GW entities have become more powerful than their host states, e.g., Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For states that find themselves in that situation, 4GW theory suggests another approach: establish the rules of the game.  From the state’s perspective, gunmen from one cartel killing gunmen from a rival is not a big problem. As one Russian said to me in Moscow years ago when I asked about Chechnya, “Well, now Chechens are killing Chechens, so who cares?”

The problem is that sometimes civilians are killed, or kidnapped, or robbed, which reveals the hollowness of the state and undermines its legitimacy.  A President of Mexico or another country where non-state elements have become more powerful than the state might offer them a deal: if you avoid civilian casualties, we will stay out of the way of whatever is your top priority.  For drug cartels, that is making money by selling drugs.

While the state is not strong enough to wage war on and defeat the cartels, it can still raise or lower the cost of their doing business.  Like most businessmen, I suspect the cartels’ leaders want to lower costs. They might be open to a deal on those terms. Of course it is a worse solution from the state’s standpoint than destroying the cartels.  But it may be the best deal weak states can get.

If Mexico had a “rules of the game” agreement with at least the major cartels, an incident such as the massacre of nine American women and children would see the cartel whose gunmen did it execute those gunmen itself.

As always in 4GW, the war with drug cartels is at root a contest for legitimacy.  When civilians are killed in the war among cartels, both the state and the cartels suffer a blow to their legitimacy.  The state arose to bring order: safety of persons and property. States that cannot or will not do that lose their legitimacy.  In turn, smart 4GW entities such as Hezbollah know their legitimacy depends on providing safety and other services to the civilian sea in which they swim.  When they kill civilians, they hurt themselves.

Bismarck described politics as “the art of the possible”.  To preserve public peace and civilian safety in places where the state is weak, a deal with 4GW forces laying out the rules of the game may not be the best solution, but it may be the only possible solution.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.

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