Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of Politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.
The nation had to prove it was a nation. It had to prove that it could fight and win. It, like so many nations today, had to receive assistance from a foreign power in order to gain its freedom and independence. That nation seeking assistance would become the United States; the nation offering help following the Battle of Saratoga was France. Twice, American men died to preserve the independence of America's oldest ally and now, through many years of turbulence and trials there is another window of opportunity to test our mettle in support of the French Republic.
France, motivated by the victories of groups such as al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, is conducting a rapid military incursion into Mali. This included the immediate use of airstrikes, Special Forces, and paratroopers. France has made a good case that their so-called haste was for a real fear that the capital would fall, and Mali would become "Sahelistan."
The March 2012 coup in Mali overthrowing the government makes the current situation difficult. Therefore, we cannot pretend this is a battle for democracy versus tyranny; it is a battle of civilization versus barbarism; it is a battle of the West versus extremism. Although, the recapture of Timbuktu may be a positive turning point, French President Hollande has promised to keep French forces in Mali "as long as necessary."
France should be applauded. She took the opposite view of the Obama administration in Libya and the continued U.S. ambiguity that has left over 60,000 Syrians dead. France acted before the tragedy became worse. It is therefore no surprise that the Obama administration is shielding itself from full support by criticizing the hastiness of the French operation. One would assume this sentiment is not shared by the civilians being brutalized by the Islamic extremists.
The French have requested a greater U.S. role, but the Obama administration seems comfortable with only logistical support. Thus far, the United States has provided military transport, limited refueling, and nonlethal equipment. The latest news is that the United States is considering a UAV airbase in Niger, primarily for surveillance.
The short-term concern from the American side was over who was going to pay for the American aid. The long-term interest was over France's exit strategy. The Obama administration has touted Libya as the model for an "Obama Doctrine." In fact, the inaction in Libya, and the lack of overt leadership following Qadhafi's downfall led in part to the trouble in Mali with foreign fighters spilling over into the rest of North Africa. The decisive use of American power early could have prevented much of this (and the tragic events in Benghazi).
The situation in Mali from a realist point of view is one where the Islamic extremists could use Mali as a base of operations. From a liberal point of view the atrocities committed by the extremists cannot go unanswered. Western forces, as much as they can stop Islamic extremist atrocities, can also prevent Malian government and African force retaliation. On Tuesday, Toria Nuland of the Department of State said, "What I will say is that the U.S. military is not going to be engaged in combat operations in Mali, and we don't expect U.S. forces to become directly involved on the ground in combat either. So this is a discrete set of missions in support of our French ally in the efforts that they are making to support the people of Mali." The statement is fantastical on many grounds, but in particular the administration's allergy to understanding the global War on Terror. Mali has become a node in the global War on Terror like it or not. Do we seek victory in this conflict or simply accommodation?
The United States needs to give clear and unambiguous support to our French ally. This support can be in transportation, refueling, surveillance, armed drones, air strikes, and if necessary, a larger military presence, that is overt and direct.
The issue that the media has focused on is the actual issue of Mali, important in its own right. However, the issue for American grand strategy is three-fold, and the relationship with France is deep, historical, and cultural and goes well beyond paper treaties.
First, are we serious about victory in the global War on Terror? If so, the intervention in Mali is a necessity. Second, are we serious about protecting civilians from the worst aspects of barbarism? If so, to support the French is not a question. Lastly, is all the talk of alliances and renewed friendships more than talking points? If so, the support of our oldest ally in her just cause is obligatory. Do we seriously expect France to side with the United States in future conflicts if we fail to honor the alliance?