Troops on the border

SAN DIEGO — Eager to be all things to all people, President Barack Obama tends to say one thing and do another. And so, when Obama said recently that he had no interest in "militarizing" the U.S.-Mexico border, it was only a matter of time before the administration drew up plans to do just that.

Sure enough, according to media reports, the Pentagon and Homeland Security Department are developing contingency plans to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The specifics have yet to be worked out, but the $350 million initiative would radically expand the role of the U.S. military in the drug war. The proposal does not mention troop deployments, only that the military would receive the funding "for counter-narcotics and other activities" on the border.

So, for some in the National Guard, it is goodbye Iraq and Afghanistan. Hello San Diego, Nogales and Brownsville.

Before you can get your head around whether putting troops on the border is a workable solution to the drug war or just a recipe for more problems, you've got to know what this is and what it isn't.

It isn't a plan to dispatch armed National Guard troops to the border to shoot it out with drug smugglers headed north or gun smugglers headed south. You're not going to have soldiers physically interdicting southbound vehicles into Mexico looking for loads of cash, weapons or ammunition. And you're certainly not going to have those troops doubling as border patrol agents and trying to keep out illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico — according to the Border Patrol, there is not much of that going on lately anyway, because Mexican immigrants are as afraid of the dreadful U.S. economy as American tourists are of drug violence and swine flu. For now, everyone is staying in his own neighborhood.

Rather, what Obama seems to have in mind is exactly what President George W. Bush had in mind when, in 2006, his administration spent more than $1 billion to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in something called "Operation Jump Start." The goal then was to curb illegal immigration, and the guard played a supporting role.

The troops were unarmed, and they lent a hand to the Border Patrol by fixing vehicles, repairing fences, manning detection systems, building roads and performing other duties typically done by Border Patrol agents. This freed up the agents to do what Americans expect them to do: patrol the border in search of illegal immigrants. By all accounts, the program — which ended in 2008 — was a total success.

Administration officials have said the role of the National Guard troops in the drug war would be similar. Imagine a scenario where troops lighten the load on U.S. customs agents and thus allow those agents to inspect more vehicles than they do now. And no matter what, they won't be doing domestic law enforcement in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act.

This is an idea that is both pragmatic and promising, but it might also be the first step in a long journey that will eventually take us where some Americans might not want to go: eventual deployment, with the permission of the Mexican government, of a manageable number of U.S. special forces to launch an Iraq-style counterinsurgency against Mexican drug cartels. Why not? The Pentagon has already labeled Mexico a state in danger of "rapid and sudden collapse." For those who believe that, how do they avoid sending U.S. troops to prevent that collapse, which would create something we can't afford at our back door: chaos.

Given that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently made his own trip to Mexico City to meet with top officials and then returned to immediately brief Obama on — according to media reports — possible uses for the U.S. military in the Mexican drug war, my hunch is that there is more than one contingency plan in the works.

Instead of trying to be popular, Obama should start getting serious about the drug war by making the American people comfortable with the idea of sending troops into Mexico. After all, that's a reality that could be difficult to escape.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and a weekly contributor to CNN.COM.

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about the drug war:

Sizing up Mexico's war on drugs

Record number of guns in Mexico traced to the US

Trouble on the US-Mexico border