This week, the White House dispatched its peripatetic Vice President Joe Biden south to Mexico and Honduras. Biden rightly sees criminal violence and insecurity as the gravest security threat in the region, but he was too quick to dismiss the potential threat posed by Iran.
“People talk about Hezbollah. They talk about Iranian support for weapons and the rest. I guarantee you, Iran will not be able to pose a hemispheric threat to the United States,” he said. This appears to contradict what Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James R. Clapper warned on January 31:
(The) 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. shows that some Iranian officials—probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the U.S. in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.
Using Mexico or Latin America as a staging area, therefore, cannot be ruled out.
Iran notwithstanding, Biden’s primary mission was to reassure Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon that the U.S. isn’t losing sight of Mexico’s difficult economic and security challenges and values its relationship. He also met with the three candidates for the Mexican presidency in the July 1 election. It appears Biden did not address continued fallout from the gun-walking scandal, Operation Fast and Furious, that sent firearms south to Mexican gangsters.
Looming large on the agenda was a recent push by several leaders in the region to discuss “market alternatives” or drug legalization as a way of reducing the profits of criminal organizations. Biden rightly rejected the idea, although his manner of responding was perhaps confusing. “I think it warrants a discussion. It is totally legitimate,” responded Biden. “And the reason it warrants a discussion is, on examination you realize there are more problems with legalization than with nonlegalization.”
As for an effective drug-fighting strategy, Biden observed: “We did such a good job in shutting down the Caribbean and [with] Plan Colombia that it was like squeezing a water balloon. It came up through Central America and up throughMexico.” His analysis is correct, but the problem with the over-used balloon effect metaphor is the stark fact that U.S. drug consumption keeps filling the balloon with an estimated $35 billion of U.S. cash. On domestic consumption and demand reduction, Biden offered nothing new.
In Honduras, an epicenter for criminal violence with the highest homicide rate in the world, Biden reported that the U.S. has provided about $361 million in anti-crime aid under the Central America Regional Security Initiative, which leaders fear is insufficient given the gravity of the threat. Biden promised that the Administration would seek a little more funding. Yet, doubts about the Administration’s commitment to the drug fight are fueled by its latest budget request, which includes a 16 percent reduction in counter-narcotics assistance to Latin America—including a 60 percent drop in aid to Guatemala—reducing U.S. ability to build capacity and much-needed support for institutional reforms.
After two days of whirlwind meetings that left many questions unanswered, Biden hurried back home for a fundraiser in Florida.
Like other troublesome threats and miscues—Iran, the Keystone Pipeline decision, Syria—President Obama definitely wants a preemptive strategy to keep the issue of drug policy or the threats of drug-fueled disorder in Mexico and Central America off the electorate’s mind in November.
Vice President Biden’s trip into the region is a reminder that while the Administration has not entirely abandoned our neighbors to the South, it still hopes to fight a raging wildfire with a leaky garden hose and a President who wants to remain above the fray.