A Broken Foreign Policy Establishment Turns to Mali

President Obama failed to anticipate the consequences of intervening in Libya and has made no effort to involve Congress in what may be his next war.

mali full .png
Today's big news is that "the Obama administration is considering significant military backing for France's drive against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali." According to the Washington Post, "the United States is already providing surveillance and other intelligence help to France and may soon offer military support such as transport or refueling planes." The article mentions that "its support for a major ally could test U.S. legal boundaries and stretch counterterrorism resources in a murky new conflict," but nowhere hints that Congress should make the call.

In the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous and Julian Barnes report that "a U.S. decision about aiding France's military campaign in Mali has been delayed by complicated policy and legal concerns."

Note these two paragraphs:

France has asked the U.S. to provide logistical support, including aircraft to move French troops and heavy equipment, and refueling planes that would allow French fighters to stay in the air longer. Paris has also asked the U.S. to provide surveillance assets, both drones and satellites, to intercept rebel communications and assess their movements, according to Western officials. Any U.S. support would be nonlethal, a senior Obama administration official said, adding: "They're not asking us to pull the trigger."

Administration lawyers are assessing whether providing support planes and intelligence that could be used in French targeting decisions would make the U.S. complicit in French strikes.

Isn't that something? If a small country or a non-state actor conducted air strikes in the United States, and the Russians provided that country or non-state actor with support planes and intelligence, do you think we'd need to consult lawyers to decide if it made the Russians complicit? I sometimes wonder if firing all the "administration lawyers" would be a blow to the rule of law or strengthen it by denying the veneer of legitimacy to transparently self-serving arguments.

Americans wondering why we're being asked to help make war in yet another country -- already we've redirected $8 million to help France -- should know that present troubles in Mali are partially rooted in the consequences of the last war Obama waged without Congressional approval.

Ross Douthat wrote a fair-minded account back in July:

When the United States intervened on behalf of Libya's rebels, skeptics worried that we could end up splitting the country in two, empowering Islamic radicals and creating a bigger humanitarian disaster than the one we hoped to forestall. The worst-case situation has not come to pass in Libya itself. But thanks to the ripple effects from Colonel Qaddafi's fall, it's well on its way to happening in nearby Mali. Not much attention has been paid to these events, because although Mali has more than twice Libya's population, it is neither oil-rich nor strategically important. It is the kind of place whose politics is covered briefly in the back pages of foreign policy magazines, in between capsule book reviews and want ads for Kissinger Associates.

But northeastern Mali is part of the same Saharan region that encompasses southern Libya, which means weapons and fighters from the Libyan war have moved easily across Algeria into Mali since Colonel Qaddafi's fall, transforming a long-simmering insurgency into a multifront civil war. Mali's insurgents are mostly Tuaregs, a Berber people whose homeland cuts across several national borders. This spring, their uprising won them effective control of the northern half of Mali, which they renamed Azawad. The central government's weak response, meanwhile, led to a coup in Mali's capital, Bamako, which replaced the civilian president with a junta that promised to take the fight to the rebels more effectively.

That hasn't happened; instead, the rebels have taken the fight to one another. The Tuareg insurgency included an Islamist element, known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), which is affiliated with a jihadi group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the last month, Ansar Dine's fighters have seized the breakaway region's major cities, ousting their erstwhile allies and embarking on a Taliban-style campaign of vandalism against the region's monuments. So Mali today looks a bit like Libya did in early 2011, except with a more obvious jihadi presence: You have a weakened authoritarian government governing half the country, a dubious and divided rebellion trying to rule the other, and a humanitarian crisis looming for the civilians caught in between. But in this case, the civilians are on their own. There is absolutely no possibility that the United States, France and Britain will intervene on their behalf. 
That last bit may be technically right, but it's probably fair to say that Douthat wrongly presumed that the Western intervention in Mali wouldn't happen at all. Never underestimate mission creep. As Owen Jones wrote in The Independent, "this intervention is itself the consequence of another. The Libyan war is frequently touted as a success story for liberal interventionism. Yet the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship had consequences that Western intelligence services probably never even bothered to imagine." And not just intelligence services.

Obama declared in 2011 that his Libya intervention was a resounding success. And the political press backed him up. There wasn't mere indifference to the fact that he violated the War Powers Resolution. The New York Times reported that "for President Obama, the image of a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi offers vindication, however harrowing, of his intervention in Libya," adding that "even critics conceded a success for Mr. Obama's approach." U.S. News and World Report asserted that "with Qadhafi's defeat within reach, Obama's strategy of the United States acting as part of a broader international effort seems vindicated." David Cortright declared at CNN that Gadhafi's collapse "is a major success for NATO and a vindication of President Barack Obama's policy of multilateral humanitarian interventionism." Said George E. Condon in National Journal, "No one in 2008 could have anticipated that the greatest triumphs and signature moments in Barack Obama's presidency would come in the realm of foreign affairs. But with the reports on Thursday of the capture and possible death of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Obama's successes overseas now dwarf his domestic accomplishments."

As Freddie de Boer later noted, "The reality in Libya will continue to develop for years and decades," but "the conventional wisdom likes short-term answers, shallow understanding, and glib assignations of good or bad." In America, complicated interventions are declared urgent and mandatory by conventional wisdom, though few people shaping it know much about the country involved. Successes are confidently pronounced so prematurely than anyone with common sense should be able to see that the full consequences aren't yet evident. And when the unintended consequences manifest themselves, no one stands up and says that they failed to accurately predict the fallout of the intervention that they touted. The foreign policy establishment and many of the journalists that cover them just repeat the process over and over again, their confidence unaffected. How does an establishment that fails so often manage it? 

I don't know what's going to happen in Mali. But I know that the Libya intervention can't be fully evaluated until we find out (and until we see what else happens in Libya itself in coming years). I also know that America's role in Mali is more likely to reflect the will of the people if Congress determines it. Sadly, the legislature isn't yet willing to assert its Constitutional prerogatives, and the political press doesn't see fit to cover the news as if they have an important role.
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

Just In