WASHINGTON - President Obama shuns talk of a "war on drugs." But when he welcomes Mexican President Felipe Calderón to the White House Wednesday, that nation's bloody fight with drug cartels - and its implications for U.S. security and immigration policy - will be a top agenda item.
The meeting comes as U.S. policymakers reassess the long-standing fight against the drug trade. Last week, with the death toll from Calderón's 3-year-old crackdown surpassing 23,000, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the brutality and barbarism in Mexico is "just beyond imagination."
But while she reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to helping Mexico disrupt the cartels, she questioned the traditional emphasis on interdiction: "We are nowhere near what I would consider to be an effective strategy."
With that backdrop, experts on drug policy will be watching the two-day Calderón visit for clues on Obama's approach to the drug trade.
The drug policy the Obama administration issued earlier this month calls for shifting emphasis toward addiction treatment and prevention as a way to stanch demand for drugs, though two-thirds of the $15.5 billion drug-control budget is still dedicated to law enforcement.
So, folks like John Walters, the U.S. drug czar under George W. Bush, are hoping to hear a sharp message from Obama when Calderón is at his side, such as: "We are going to destroy these mafias together, and we will not back down in the face of threats, and we will support the brave campaign of President Calderón.
"That would be enormously important politically, and it would be enormously damaging to the morale of the bad guys," Walters said.
Mexicans have long paid a high price in blood, corruption and instability for American's' appetite for illegal drugs.
The U.S. has intensified efforts to show solidarity in recent years. The state dinner honoring Calderón - only the second since Obama took office - is the latest example.
Calderón also will speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about trade and to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, a rare honor for a foreign leader.
Obama and Calderón are also likely to discuss Haiti, Iran, climate change, energy policy and two especially contentious issues: the new Arizona immigration law and a long-running dispute that has kept Mexican trucks off U.S. roads in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.