Mexico faces two serious challenges: the deepest economic slowdown in Latin America and an explosion of drug-related violence. To the extent that these crises are getting any attention at all in the United States, the views are widely divergent.

On the one hand are those, including the U.S. military, who claim that Mexico is at risk of becoming a “failed state,” a label typically reserved for truly “ungoverned spaces.” Think Somalia. At the other extreme are those, like the members of the Washington Post editorial board, who hold up the country as an economic model for the rest of Latin America. Both views are wildly off-base, shaped less by facts than a desire to justify — and perpetuate — mistaken Bush-era policies.

The ‘Failed State’ View

The failed-state alarm bells began ringing as the Bush administration packed its bags. In late December, the drug czar’s office warned in its National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that “Mexico drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.” Then, in January, the U.S. military’s Joint Forces Command issued a report warning that Mexico (along with Pakistan) was at risk of “rapid and sudden collapse.” Before leaving office, CIA Director Michael Hayden also cited Mexico’s surging violence as a top threat to U.S. security, in addition to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mexico, Pakistan, and Iran: Do they really belong in the same category when it comes to global risks? Sure, security concerns south of the border are serious. More than 6,000 people died in drug-related violence last year, and high-profile kidnappings and killings have rattled the nation. But labeling Mexico a potential “failed state” is a false and dangerous distraction from the country’s real problems.

While drug cartels have managed to corrupt many officials at the state, local, and national levels of government, as well as in the police departments and the military, there are no indications that the Mexican state — or any individual Mexican state — is on the brink of dissolution or disintegration. Mexico still has strong institutions that millions of people work and struggle every day to defend, including relatively well-functioning public services such as health and education. Judicial, political, and military institutions, while far from perfect, can hardly be described as on the verge of collapse.

Justifying Continued U.S.-backed Militarism

However overblown they may be, the dire statements about Mexico’s fragile state by the U.S. military and outgoing Bush Administration officials have been used to justify a militaristic U.S. approach to its southern neighbor. The Joint Forces Command report ominously declares: “Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on serious implications for homeland security.” In his last days in office, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told reporters he’d prepared a “surge capability” to respond to violence in Mexico.

Fears stoked by talk of a “failed state” will make needed changes in U.S. policy all the more difficult. The Bush administration’s so-called Mérida Initiative (which mirrors the consistently failing approach the United States has taken for years with Plan Colombia) has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico for military hardware and training to fight the “War on Drugs.” Meanwhile, the poverty, joblessness, and widespread corruption that are at the root of the drug problem, as well as the continued U.S. demand for drugs and the iron river of weapons flowing into Mexico from the United States, received scant attention.

The “Mexico as Economic Model” Perspective

Just as military interests have a stake in fueling fear about Mexico’s stability, free market fundamentalists have an interest in promoting the country as a beacon of sound economic policies. Since Mexico became a partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, conservatives have touted the country as a successful example of “neoliberal” reforms, including trade and investment liberalization, deregulation, and privatization. NAFTA promoters heralded the increase in trade and investment flows between the three North American countries. Never mind that these increases failed to deliver promised gains in poverty reduction or wage growth.

Today it’s clearer than ever that Mexico’s unfettered opening-up to the global economy has made it exceptionally vulnerable. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the International Monetary Fund predict that Mexico will be the hardest-hit of all large developing countries by the global crisis because of its dependency on the U.S. market. Forecasts are for negative growth in 2009, a manufacturing slump, growing unemployment (750,000 jobs were lost in 2008), and ongoing capital flight.

And yet the free-marketeers remain in denial. Recent editorials in both The Washington Post and the The Wall Street Journal praised the soundness of Mexico’s economic reforms and applauded President Felipe Calderón as a responsible leader (in contrast to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the other “bombastic” ones on the Latin American left). Calderón has helped maintain the illusion of prosperity by touting obscure financial indicators that have nothing to do with the reality of Mexicans who face increasing poverty, higher food prices and food dependency, and reduced opportunities to find jobs in Mexico and the United States.

As the Obama administration develops its policy towards Mexico, it should dismiss both unfounded alarmism and unbridled optimism. Mexico is in crisis, but the roots of that crisis are the economic policies that have created such widespread hopelessness and despair. Only through an honest and candid examination of the facts can these two neighbors hope to build a new partnership based on real security and prosperity.