Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lack of Attention to Institutions, Exemplified

Via Joshua Frens-String, the Center for New American Security has a new report about how to improve public security in Mexico. The gist:
The United States and its partners throughout the Western Hemisphere stand the best chance of securing the region against the most dangerous cartels by attacking them together. A regional security framework such as the “Mesoamerican Security Corridor,” proposed by the U.S. Department of State, offers a new opportunity to link U.S. and Colombian assistance and counternarcotics programs in Mexico to address challenges in the Central American states to Mexico’s south.
At no point in the piece is institutional strengthening mentioned. At no point is the word "corruption" or any of its derivations used. There is nothing precisely wrong about the piece, but any discussion of public security in Mexico that doesn't start with stronger and more honest crime-fighting institutions is almost by definition flawed. Putting aside the wisdom of the strategy, the idea that all we need is a regional framework (or, in alternative interpretations, all we need is COIN or to copy our approach to Colombia) assumes that Mexico has the bodies capable of pursuing any strategy to its logical end. Right now, that's clearly not the case; even a beautifully designed regional strategy won't automatically address the overloaded criminal justice system, the creaky prisons, or the municipal police officers who double as assassins for the local drug bosses. I imagine that part of the problem for American analysts, especially those with a military bent, is that it's hard to sketch out a significant American role in anti-corruption programs and institution building--the improvement has to be homegrown. But I do think the improvement in Mexico lies not in grand conceptual changes but in addressing a million different details.


jd said...

Wow, that piece could've been penned by the MexiColombia-bot 9000. So pointless and lame. I love the map of "Mesoamerica" - I waited for like 10 seconds to see if the PDF would load some sort of useful info into the image, but nope, CNAS just wants to remind its trusting readers of the existence of what The Onion once called the "lesser Americas."

I think the best way to look at that piece is a bit more meta. A security-focused group with such impeccable mainstream credentials can't just say NOTHING about Mexico, see - there's a war on down there! So they borrow the MexiColombia-bot from AEI or CAP or some other (possibly worthy, probably not) group that pays similarly fleeting attention to events al sur, slap a piece together with an ex-military man's byline, and with great satisfaction add another line to their "topics" page. The N in CNAS is particularly absurd - as if there's any thinking within their long list of publications that doesn't fall squarely within the bounds of DC conventions.

(I don't miss DC much.)

pc said...

My eyes jumped past the map entirely--didn't even notice. Yeah not so hot. There is not a lot good to be said about what a lot of the DC think tanks are writing about Mexico these days. The Mexico Institute has had some interesting papers going back a few months, but more of it is like this--kind of slap-dash, looking for a way for the American presence to be a determining factor, and not coming across as particularly deep or nuanced in its understanding. I dont know if you read Aguachile, but he's had a bunch of posts about some stuff published by CSIS that was really pretty damning.

jd said...

Yep, I do read Aguachile, and the CSIS error re AMLO he (she?) called out was definitely the most cringe-inducing thing I've seen in a while. The Mexico Institute (and Wilson Center more broadly) has an established record of engagement with the region, so I expect them to produce decent analysis, just as I would WOLA or the Inter-American Dialogue. Among other mainline think tanks, Brookings and CFR have slightly spottier records (Kevin Casas-Zamora is helping Brookings improve), CSIS is both bland and unreliable, and just about everyone else, forget it (the craptitude of the right wing ones, who only have the phone numbers of Alvaro Vargas Llosa and Roger Noriega, goes largely without saying). The easiest heuristic is pieces authored by ex-DEA, ATF, or military folks - forget it. More broadly, groups that don't have the capacity to discuss governance within the countries they're assessing and can only use the frame of US assistance, forget it.

All that said, it is interesting to watch how the need to say something about Mexico expands through the DC opinion-making web. Now that CNAS has weighed in, I eagerly await the contributions of Third Way, the Project for a New American Century, and what the hell, AIPAC and the Ludwig von Mises Institute ("As drug cartels know, the peso is just worthless paper. That's why they're one step ahead: accumulating gold holdings on their teeth and their pistol grips. Will the Fed heed their lessons?").

pc said...

Yeah as you say the ones you can count on to be good and seek to actually say something relevant rather than just check the box are the ones that focus on the region. The all purpose think tanks just seem like they want to have a Mexico commentary every so often, regardless of what it is saying. I also think in general the push to seek to explain what this means for the US leads one astray. All too often, the answer is not a lot that's not obvious.

Also, to clarify, I didn't mean to say that most of what Mexico Institute publishes today is slap-dash, but that most of everything else is. And that the last time I remember Mexico Institute having a big batch of stuff was a couple of months ago.

With Mexican public security to be such a newsworthy topic probably well into the future, some of those places should give Mexicans fellowships too. It'd be nice to see Luis Astorga publish a white paper in English every few months. But again that goes back to the primary concern for many of these being what can the US do about, what does this mean for the US.

Oh and Aguachile is a dude.

pc said...

I'm also encouraged by CFR starting regional blogs (Shannon O'Neil has LA's). That was long overdue, could be good.