If somehow we could quantify the brutality and horrors of war beyond mere death tolls and newspapers used those statistics to determine which stories went onto their front pages, most of the news of the Middle East would be so deeply buried as to never attract America's attention.
Instead we would be reading every day of places like San Fernando, Mexico where during the past several days a series of mass graves have revealed the corpses of 177, mostly innocents, perhaps as many as 122 snatched from buses taking them to the United States, scores bludgeoned to death by a sledge hammer. San Fernando is 90 miles from Texas border in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. It's an average Mexican town of 60,000 people that, thanks to the drug wars, has become known for grotesque violence that suggests it has been over-run not by mere criminals but by some kind of supernatural evil. In one instance, a man's son was kidnapped and $10,000 in ransom was sought. When the man raised every penny he could and sent the kidnappers $5,000, they sent him back just half of his son.
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has said his government is winning in the drug wars. But since he undertook to do so, 35,000 Mexicans have died and entire parts of the country have been rendered lawless. In part this is due to the brutality of the warring factions, like the Gulf Coast cartel and their former enforcers the Zetas who are now running wild in Tamaulipas. In part, it is due to the complicity of the local police. In San Fernando last week, the police chief was arrested for complicity and about two-thirds of his officers are now incarcerated.
When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called what is happening in Mexico an insurgency, Calderon and other Mexican officials bristled. When the U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual offered criticisms of the Mexican government's approach to containing the drug war, the Mexicans complained bitterly to Washington and forced his ouster. Interestingly, Pascual was an unpopular choice from the get-go because he has specialized in failed states and Mexico didn't like the message. But rumors have him being replaced by Ambassador Anthony Wayne, recently stationed in another drug lord dominated failed state close to America's heart ... if not quite as close to its borders ... Afghanistan.
While the message of such an appointment would not be popular in the DF (Mexico City) if it were ultimately made, it's easy to understand the rationale behind it. Further, given the almost $2 billion in aid the United States has pumped into Mexico to help them fight these drug wars, you would think the Mexican government might be a little less brittle in its response to U.S. language and personnel choices. After all, not only has the Obama administration made assisting Mexico a top priority, recognizing that Mexican troubles translate quickly into U.S. immigration, border security and drug problems, but Secretary Clinton has been especially forthright in acknowledging America's degree of responsibility for many of these problems given that in the end, we are the consumers of the drugs that are being trafficked through Mexico, it's American cash that's fueling the animal greed of the feral gangs that are destabilizing our nearest Southern neighbor.
This in turn, leads to one final observation. Recently, we have watched as unrest has spread across the Middle East and regularly posed the question to ourselves: Where do we intervene and how? Inevitably, the question turns to our "vital national interests." This is usually code for the calculation we make as to whether or not intervention or standing by is the best approach to ensure the flow of raw materials we depend on. There has been some talk about humanitarian reasons for intervening in Libya but that is just indefensible nonsense. Mexico demonstrates that ... as does the Cote d'Ivoire and the Congo, as does Somalia and even, as recent findings have illustrated, as did Sri Lanka during its bloody conflict. We don't intervene in those places because either they produce nothing we need or because when they do, as in the case of Congolese minerals or Cote d'Ivoire's cocoa, we've taken the position that we'll tolerate instability or brutal governments so long as what we need continues to flow to us. Similarly, when our big oil producing partners brutally crush a rebellion by an oppressed minority in Bahrain, we look the other way.
Not all such conflicts have such a simple "follow-the-money" theme at their core -- but in places like Syria and Yemen, even though we have serious interests in promoting the overthrow of Assad's dangerous Iranian-backed regime in Damascus and fear Yemen turning into a failed state and a bigger haven for extremism, we sit on the sidelines because it's just too hard to answer the "vital interest" question. That said, since further unrest in the region might be seen to lead to higher oil prices, there is also a desire to avoid exacerbating the current unrest.
Quite apart from the complex geopolitics of the Middle East or Africa, however, this tour of the horizon suggests there is another issue the United States needs to think long and hard about when assessing our reaction to the grievous pain caused in many of these war and instability ravaged countries. It's the issue Hillary Clinton raised with respect to Mexico. It is our responsibility for the tensions on the ground. The American market for drugs, oil, gas, gold, diamonds, coltan, wolframite and other minerals provides the cash that thugs battle over, that fuels brutal states and that pays for terrorism. Clearly, we would do more to bring peace to these countries and to reduce the incentives for and leverage of bad actors by reducing our demand than by any other military or political steps we could take.
But we do nothing. And thus, we are filling mass graves and crushing demonstrators and blowing up our own troops with roadside bombs every bit as much as the animals we rightly condemn. We made them. We are living in a garbage strewn mess and blaming our plight on the rats. And thus as we calculate where and how to respond to the world's unrest, it's worth asking in how many of these afflicted countries' national interests it would be to cut off the out of control appetites of the United States of America.
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.