Mali and the Conundrum of U.S. Military Interventions

There is no hard template for when the United S. should intervene in a conflict abroad.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS.  You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

Perhaps no issue has dominated discussion of U.S. foreign policy over the past decade more than military intervention. When should America intervene in a sovereign country to protect its interests and values, and when should it stand on the sidelines? 

The "Intervention Calculation" will be front and center during the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings for President Obama's nominees for top cabinet positions at the Departments of Defense and State and at the CIA. It will continue to play out in the policy debate over preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. And new forms of intervention—primarily through the use of unmanned drones, but also through computer networks—will be thoroughly examined in the coming year through lenses legal, moral, and strategic, as the use of such technology moves forward at breakneck speed and little in the way of international norms.

But today, there is the question of Mali. 

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France, a U.S. ally and partner in the 2011 United Nations-sanctioned NATO intervention in Libya, has intervened in its former colony to push back a surge of Islamist rebels that threatened to take the capital, Bamako. (For more background on the conflict see "Weighing Foreign Intervention in Mali") Should the United Stake part in this intervention?

If our interviews with dozens of experts for the 2013 season of Great Decisions are any indication, there is no hard template for when the United States should intervene.

"The answers are never simple, but the standards are," said Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs in one interview last year. "Do you have the capacity? And that takes several forms—the military capacity, the financial capacity. Do you have the international support and domestic support, and then do you have the stomach or the will?"

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It's as good a standard as any, so let's see how it holds up in the case of Mali. 

Certainly the United States has the military capacity to contribute to the French mission. Indeed, it was just a matter of hours before French officials publicly requested American support to assist with transporting heavy equipment, providing drone surveillance as well as aircraft refueling—tasks similar to those played by the United States during the NATO-led Libya intervention. 

"We can bring things to the playing field that no one else can," said former Obama national security adviser General James Jones in an interview about U.S. intervention. Military capacity: check.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria with Military Action?]

What about the financial capacity? An assisted military intervention in Mali would be relatively inexpensive. The United States spent about $1 billion on the Libya intervention—a fraction of the roughly $6.2 billion spent per month in Afghanistan in mid-2011, or the 3.5 billion spent monthly in Iraq during that same period. In terms of return on investment: $1 billion to root out a nasty consortium of anti-Western, al Qaeda-affiliated groups that destabilize North Africa and the Sahara, attempt to take control of a peaceful West African nation, and hold Americans hostage in neighboring Algeria is not an outrageous financial proposition. From strictly budgetary perspective, it's entirely feasible. Financial capacity: check.

Does an intervention in Mali have international support? The United Nations authorized last fall the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to draft a plan for an African-led intervention, though both entities consulted with French military planners. The rapid advance of the rebels on Bamako spurred the French to jump the gun, but Economic Community of West African States troops from Nigeria, Senegal, and elsewhere are likely by now operating alongside French troops. In terms of international support—Mali is a go.

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But the case for a U.S. intervention in Mali starts to get tricky when it comes to Tepperman's final two standards—domestic support and will. Framing Mali as a strategic intervention that would benefit U.S. interests is a tough sell. Most public opinion polling shows that Americans across the board see terrorism as a waning threat. The deaths of hostages including Americans in Algeria as a direct result of the French intervention could change public opinion, as could a better explanation of the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaeda in the region. But after a decade of slogging it out in Afghanistan and Iraq and concerns about slow economic growth, the national debt, and a bloated defense budget, Americans are certainly not up for another long escapade into the Muslim world to fight the war on terrorism. A Mali intervention does not pass the domestic support or will/stomach standard.

So where does that leave U.S. policymakers? Most likely, we'll see a return to the protracted "lead from behind" model of intervention witnessed during the Libya operation, what some Washington hands have referred to as "the Obama doctrine."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

"That doctrine essentially says that where the United States confronts conflict in which the U.S. itself is not directly threatened, but where we have interests, and where we have both regional allies and some sort of international authorization," said David Ignatius of the Washington Post, "that the U.S. will feel comfortable in using some military force."

This will mean providing the kind of support France and its African partners have requested discreetly and on a very limited scale, with firm deadlines for the campaign. But, as Conor Friederdorf points out in The Atlantic, even the limited scope of an operation like Libya—deemed a success by many in Washington—can lead to the kind of regional destabilization that helped bring us to where we are today, debating yet another intervention in nearby Mali. Just one of the many conundrums inherent to the intervention calculation.

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