Why the MAGA hysteria about bombing Mexico is dumber than you thought

The idea of more U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation against drug cartels is not inherently problematic. But other times, Republicans tout the threat of waging military action without Mexico’s consent as a badge of their own toughness.

By Greg Sargent, Washington Post

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared that he’s prepared to authorize drone strikes against drug cartels in Mexico. Bedecked in military-looking garb at the border, he recently vowed to blockade Mexican ports. DeSantis is not alone: Many MAGA-fied Republicans are demanding stepped-up military action against the flow of fentanyl — including inside Mexico, without that country’s assent.

This talk isn’t just insanely reckless. It also exposes a profound absurdity embedded in the MAGA worldview, one that treats migration to the United States as a security problem to be “solved” with maximal force, not a hemispheric challenge that requires international cooperation and diplomacy.

You might scoff: Surely such warmongering is nothing more than GOP presidential primary posturing. But it’s occurring in a larger context: DeSantis has also proposed a blueprint for border security that relies heavily on restoring the “Remain in Mexico” policy. First instituted during Donald Trump’s presidency — and wound down by President Biden — it forced asylum seekers to await hearings in Mexico, and many Republicans see reviving it as a “border security” panacea.

But doing this would require the cooperation of Mexico. Earlier this year, the Mexican government declared that it opposes restarting the program, and this kind of belligerent approach from Republicans, even if rhetorical, would probably make securing cooperation much harder.

“Mexico probably will refuse to continue to cooperate with a president that threatens to use force against Mexico without Mexico’s consent,” Martha Bárcena, former Mexican ambassador to the United States, told me. “It’s a total absurdity.”

True, Republicans sometimes say they’ll seek Mexico’s permission to wage war on its soil. The idea of more U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation against drug cartels is not inherently problematic. But other times, Republicans tout the threat of waging military action without Mexico’s consent as a badge of their own toughness.

Last week, for instance, DeSantis answered “yes” when an Iowa voter asked whether he’d use drones to “take out” cartels in Mexico. If Mexico won’t help, DeSantis continued, the United States will “do what we have to do.” And his suggestion of naval blockades to prevent precursor chemicals from entering Mexican ports comes with a hint that the action would be unilateral if Mexico “drags its feet.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has proposed sending in Special Operations forces and said if Mexico doesn’t want to help, “so be it.” Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld wants the United States to “bomb Mexico,” meaning the cartels, even “if Mexico won’t agree.”

As David Frum writes for the Atlantic, such talk addresses a political problem for Republicans. Huge numbers of the opioid epidemic’s victims are rural and White, and a broader domestic crackdown might demonize or criminalize many GOP constituents; threatening Mexico instead spins a tale of “virtuous middle-Americans beset by alien villains.”

But that tale runs into a problem. DeSantis recently said he would reinstate “Remain in Mexico” as the primary way of disincentivizing migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. Many Republicans believe that if migrants can’t disappear into the interior while waiting for hearings, they won’t come at all.

But data on border crossings during the policy’s implementation casts doubt on whether there’s any such effect, as Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council, has demonstrated. And the program was a humanitarian disaster for migrants.

All that aside, removing migrants to Mexico is not merely a matter of dumping them on the other side of the border. Running the program required painstaking negotiations between the U.S. and Mexican governments, because such removals are multilateral agreements pursuant to laws in both countries.

“Mexico would have to formally agree to restart ‘Remain in Mexico,’” Reichlin-Melnick told me. “You cannot simply send someone to a country that does not want them.”

It might be argued that “bomb Mexico” talk could exert more pressure on Mexico to restart the policy if the next U.S. president demands it. But, with Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, regularly lambasting DeSantis’s anti-immigrant policies, GOP war fever will make it politically harder for Mexico to acquiesce, said Bárcena, who was ambassador during “Remain in Mexico” under Trump.

“All cooperation will be less likely if the Republican candidates continue with the threat of use of force,” Bárcena said, as Mexicans will criticize Obrador for “yielding to the U.S.”

The DeSantis-MAGA understanding of migration woefully lacks any serious hemispheric vision. Myriad factors throughout the Americas, from extreme poverty to gang violence and civil breakdown, drive migrants to seek refuge here. That’s why they keep trying even when we make it as punishing as possible.

But to DeSantis and MAGA, all that matters is whether we are “tough” enough. If we are, migrants will give up. DeSantis’s immigration blueprint says nothing meaningful about root causes of migration or how to address them through multilateral action, dismissing migration as an “invasion” and not a complex phenomenon with profound human rights implications.

Similarly, the fentanyl crisis has myriad complicated causes. As Ryan Cooper writes for the American Prospect, we’d do better to redouble treatment at home and beef up technology at ports of entry — where most fentanyl enters — rather than launch new military adventures south of the border.

But as long as the war-whooping thrills the MAGA masses, that alone counts as mission accomplished.


Greg Sargent is a columnist. He joined The Washington Post in 2010, after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine and the New York Observer.