President Obama arrives Thursday for a two-day visit to the Mexican capital intent upon demonstrating that he wants a new relationship with America's southern neighbor based on common interests and shared responsibility – in particular when it comes to addressing the drug-trade violence hammering Mexico.
Mr. Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, will discuss a range of issues, from the economic crisis and energy to global warming and microfinancing for women in small business. Obama is likely to broad-brush with President Calderón the immigration reform he says he will attempt to move through Congress, raising an issue of particular interest to Mexicans.
But the focus of their meetings will be the two-year war Calderón has been waging against the powerful drug cartels that control Mexico's lucrative narcotics trade.
Obama has said he is determined to broaden the US-Mexico relationship beyond the perennial fixations of drugs and cross-border illegal migration. But a violent drug war that has cost the lives of more than 10,000 Mexicans – and signs that the violence is now spilling across the border into southwestern US cities – will keep the issues of drugs and violence in the forefront.
Obama's first mission is to demonstrate to audiences back home – Congress and a public that is increasingly wary of Mexico – that Mexico is a viable partner. One simple reason the president will stay overnight in Mexico City is a desire to show that Mexico is not the failing state that a recent Pentagon study concluded it risks becoming.
Beyond that, Obama wants to underscore a new day in US-Mexico relations based on recognition that responsibility for the drug trade and its violence rests on both Mexican and American shoulders.
Obama's visit to Mexico is "designed to send a very clear signal to our friends in Mexico City that we have a series of shared challenges as it relates to the economy, as it relates to security, insecurity, the threat of violence, and the impact of drug trafficking on both our countries," said Denis McDonough, the National Security Council's director for strategic communications, in a pretrip briefing with reporters.
That theme was first sounded by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her visit here last month, when she acknowledged that America's insatiable drug habit is what feeds the cartels and spawns their violence.
That is a welcome perspective in Mexico, but also one that some US-Mexico analysts say reflects the more pragmatic and realistic foreign policy that Obama is developing in general.
"There is a simple reason Obama is talking in what is admittedly a refreshing way about the shared responsibility in addressing the violence, and it's not some newfound sympathy or brotherly love for Mexico," says Jorge Chabat, a drug-trafficking expert at the Center for Economic Research and Education in Mexico City. "It is that for the first time in our bilateral relations, what is happening in Mexico has the real potential for touching daily life in the US."
Mr. Chabat says he is reminded of the words of the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the Reagan administration diplomat who said this about President Clinton's plan to rescue Mexican solvency after the 1994 peso crash. "She said that if your neighbor's house is burning, you help put out the fire – not for love of your neighbor, but because you don't want your house to burn down as well. Now Mexico is a burning state," Chabat says, "so Obama is telling Americans it is in their interest to help put the fire out so the sparks stop flying across the border."
The two presidents will address a related issue: the flow of guns from the US into Mexico. Calderón wants Obama to press for reinstating the US ban on assault weapons, noting that the US-sourced weapons the drug gangs carry are more powerful than the weapons issued to Mexican law enforcement officers.
White House officials made it clear that request will be a nonstarter. But Obama believes that much more can be done on the US side of the border and at the interagency level to stop guns from going south, they say.
While most Mexicans point a wagging finger at the US over guns and the Mexican military says weapons from the US are used in 80 percent of drug-related violence, some acknowledge that the fixation on US guns is exaggerated.
"Of course more should be done to control the flow of weapons south, but on the other hand all you have to do is look at Colombia's well-armed guerrillas to realize it's utopic to think the arms trafficking could be stopped," says José Antonio Crespo, a Mexico City political analyst. "The FARC [Colombia's main guerrilla organization) don't get their weapons in El Paso, Texas, and by the same token, if the drug gangs couldn't get their guns in the US, they'd turn to China or Ukraine."
Calderón is likely to get some satisfaction from Obama's stated determination to step up delivery of antinarcotics assistance already committed to Mexico under the Bush administration's Merida initiative. The $1.4 billion program approved by Congress was supposed to deliver high-tech equipment and other resources to Mexico's army and police, but so far only a trickle has arrived.
Obama "has been very clear with his administration that he expects those investments to roll with the dispatch that the situation, both in our border communities as well as in Mexico, demands," says the White House's Mr. McDonough.
What will be missing from Obama's words here, some in Mexico say, will be any talk of decriminalizing drugs like marijuana, which analysts such as Chabat say is the only solution in the long term to the drug trafficking and violence. "But we know he's not going to address it," Chabat says, "because the American public doesn't want to hear it."