In mid-January, something very promising happened for President Obama and the United States’ relationship with its European allies. France launched Operation Serval in Mali. In this operation, French armed forces intervened in the country’s deteriorating civil war to restore power to the incumbent government against the rapidly advancing rebel and jihadist forces from the north of the country. The French intervention bodes well for the ability of the United States and her allies to project security capabilities abroad in an era of shrinking defense budgets and strategic retrenchment—both of which will, and must, be fixtures of the near to mid-future in light of the past decade’s foreign policy overreaches and budget excesses.
I strongly encourage President Obama to echo Vice President Biden, who said on February 2, “the United States applauds and stands with France and other partners in Mali.” The French intervention could serve as a template for future foreign interventions. First and foremost, it is notable that this intervention was spearheaded, initiated, and undergone without the heavy-handed leadership of the United States that was characteristic of the past decade’s military interventions. The United States provided, as Biden stated, “intelligence support, transportation for the French and African troops and refueling capability for French aircraft.” The United States participated from behind in Mali, and to our benefit. For an intervention, though necessary to prevent that country from becoming yet another failed state in Africa, would have been strategically impossible for the United States to undergo.
President Obama’s over four years in office have seen a marked shift in America’s world stance. And this intervention fits well into the global strategy sought by President Obama which emphasizes that the United States maintain its ability to lead while frankly acknowledging our period of relative decline and budget limitations. American leadership to Obama should be buttressed by international cooperation, multilateralism, and diplomacy.
France’s willingness to intervene in Mali maximizes our collective security potential. It was also an intervention acutely attuned to France’s national interests—France has enormous ties with Mali, its former colony, and instability in that part of Africa would have gravely jeopardized the region as a whole. We cannot be blinded by the naïve belief that the United States and her allies must shy from foreign intervention. Nor, can we give into the equally naïve belief that the world is a carte blanche on which to project American power indiscriminately, whenever and wherever we wish. We cannot succumb to the belief that any and all forms of foreign intervention by the United States and her allies are tantamount to western imperialism. Nor, can we continue to believe that the United States has the inherent right and capability to intervene throughout the world.
The French intervention in Mali speaks to a world of those aforementioned realities. The intervention was on a small scale—involving just over two thousand French soldiers. The intervention was rapid—French forces arrived mid-January and forces are already in the process of departing. The intervention was inextricably tied to French interests. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the intervention involved the training and equipping of local African Union forces—a process crucial for the continent’s future self-sufficiency. The United States must welcome France’s intervention as a proper alignment of interests and capabilities given the realities of our post-recession and post-Iraq world.