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Could a Sudden Collapse of Mexico Be Obama's Surprise Foreign Policy Challenge?

Free-trade politics and the drug war created a social crisis in Mexico, and a militarized response to it may push events to an explosion.

A year-end report by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command names two countries as likely candidates for a "rapid and sudden collapse" -- Pakistan and Mexico.

The report, named "JOE 2008" (for Joint Operating Environment), states:

"In terms of worse-case scenarios for the Joint Force, and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico. The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state."

Mexican officials were quick to deny the ominous claim. Exterior Secretary Patricia Espinosa told reporters that the fast-escalating violence mostly affects the narco gangs themselves, and "Mexico is not a failed state."

Enrique Hubbard Urrea, Mexico's consul general in Dallas, actually boasted improvement, asserting that the government has won the war against the drug cartels in certain areas, such as Nuevo Laredo -- one of the border cities that has been the scene of recent nightmarish violence.

But U.S. political figures were also quick to react -- using the Pentagon's lurid findings to argue for increased military aid to Mexico. As President-elect Barack Obama met in Washington with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Jan. 12, the former U.S. drug czar, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, just back from a meeting in Mexico of the International Forum of Intelligence and Security Specialists, told a Washington press conference: "Mexico is on the edge of the abyss -- it could become a narco state in the coming decade." He praised Calderon, who he said has "launched a serious attempt to reclaim the rule of law from the chaos of the drug cartels." The International Forum of Intelligence and Security Specialists is an advisory body to Mexican federal law enforcement.

Also weighing in was Joel Kurtzman, senior fellow at the Milken Institute, who warned in a Wall Street Journal editorial: "It may only be a matter of time before the drug war spills across the border and into the U.S." He hailed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for his "plan to 'surge' civilian, and possibly, military law-enforcement personnel to the border should that be necessary…" He also lauded Calderon's deployment of 45,000 military troops to fight the drug cartels -- but raised the possibility of a tide of refugees flooding the U.S. Southwest. "Unless the violence can be reversed, the U.S. can anticipate that the flow across the border will continue."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., joined the chorus. On Jan. 11, the day before Calderon arrived in Washington, Gingrich told ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos: "There is a war under way in Mexico. More people were killed in Mexico in 2008 than were killed in Iraq. It is grossly undercovered by the American media. It's is on our border. It has the potential to extend into our country side. … The illegal narcotics teams in Mexico are in a direct civil war with the government in which they are killing the police, killing judges, killing the army ... [I'm] surprised that no one in the American system is looking at it very much. It's a very serious problem."

Gingrich doesn't have his facts quite right. The Iraq Body Count Web site puts the number of just Iraqi civilian deaths last year at a maximum of 9,028 (compared to 24,295 in 2007). The Mexican daily El Universal reports that according to its tally, there were 5,612 killings related to organized crime in Mexico last year -- more than double the 2007 figure, and the highest since it started keeping track four years ago.

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