WikiLeak Pique: Mexico’s Calderon Drives Out a U.S. Ambassador Over Leaked Cables

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When WikiLeaks released U.S. diplomatic cables last fall expressing fears and criticism about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, the Pakistani government largely shrugged. That’s because its leaders understood that frank private discussion is what any country’s taxpayers expect of their diplomats. They knew that blowing a fuse because some of that foreign-service chatter got leaked would look not only hypocritical – God knows what raw stuff Pakistani diplos say about the U.S. in their cables – but remarkably thin-skinned.

So it was bewildering to hear last weekend that the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, had resigned. He did so largely because Mexican President Felipe Calderón was complaining so loudly about WikiLeaked U.S. cables in which Pascual conveys his own reservations about the Mexican military and drug-enforcement agencies that are carrying out Calderón’s fight against violent narco-cartels. Gringo diplomats also report in one cable that Calderón has seemed “depressed” lately because of perceptions the drug war is going badly. (Mexico has seen almost 35,000 gangland murders since Calderón began his offensive four years ago.) Rather than grit his teeth and bear it – as seemingly every other world leader has done in response to the WikiLeaked cables since they began pouring out last year – Calderón took it personally. That may have scored him some short-term political points at home, but it was likely a mistake for him and Mexico in the long run, especially given the potential for alienating allies in Washington.

Granted, Calderón is in a somewhat special situation because Mexico, which in 1848 lost more than half its territory to the U.S. in the Mexican-American War, is especially sensitive about its sovereignty. “The Mexican military, which was apoplectic about the Pascual cable, expected its President to stand up and defend it,” a U.S.-Mexican relations expert in Washington, D.C., reminds me. “Calderón had to come across as especially tough on this.” But that expert also acknowledges that Calderón could have found any number of ways of doing that besides by making the cable clash a blood feud involving Pascual.

Calderón could have firmly refuted the cable’s contents, for example, without calling out Pascual in a recent interview with a Mexico City daily, saying, “That man’s ignorance translates into a distortion of what is happening in Mexico.” In the end, says the expert, who asked to remain anonymous due to the issue’s sensitivity, “Calderón allowed his pique to blind him to the reality of the damage it could do to U.S.-Mexico relations.”

Had Pascual registered his wariness about Mexico’s soldiers and cops in public, I could understand Calderón’s pique. As a U.S. citizen, it would have concerned me too: I expect my diplomats, when they’re on stage, to be diplomatic (even though, as a journalist, I’m just as curious as Julian Assange to know what they’re saying in the wings). But when they’re consulting each other, or briefing my President or Secretary of State, I expect them to cut through the bull – just as Mexican citizens should expect it of their Ambassador when it comes to gringo failings like U.S. weapons smuggling south of the border.

So while we have to applaud the Mexican military for leading Calderon’s anti-narco crusade in the absence of reliable police institutions in Mexico, we also have to remember that its record too is checkered with corruption and dysfunction as well as human rights abuses. In fact, one of the worst corruption cases, in 1997, involved no less than Mexico’s anti-drug czar – a Mexican army general – living in the pocket of the country’s top drug lord. As a result, I might be inclined to call for a U.S. ambassador’s resignation if he hadn’t expressed mistrust of the Mexican military in his confidential communiqués.

There were, of course, other factors in the animus between Pascual and Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential palace. Because the Cuban-born Pascual is an expert on failed states, many Mexican officials believe President Obama posted him to Mexico City because Washington thinks the drug violence has somehow rendered Mexico a failed state. (It hasn’t.) The Mexican government, headed by Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), also resented Pascual for opining (in another leaked cable) that the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico in dictatorial fashion from 1929 until the PAN toppled it in the 2000, is on the rise again, as evidenced by recent election results.

Still, the WikiLeaks drug-war cables will be remembered as the overriding reason Calderón wanted Pascual out. And in the 20 months Calderón has left in office, that’s not likely to enhance Mexico City’s relationship with Washington, where enthusiasm for a $1.5 billion program of anti-drug aid for Mexico is waning. Instead, the episode only reinforces Mexico’s – and Calderón’s – thin-skinned reputation for blaming their problems on the U.S.