Perhaps it is the effect of four years spent as a DJ on my university's radio station, but events in the news often make me think of songs, and the coverage of France's Mali mission is bringing to mind the song “Franco-Unamerican” by the seminal California punk band NOFX. The song was written in 2003 and drips with sarcasm over the neo-conservative/interventionist foreign policy of then President George W. Bush. That sentiment ties in well with the column “Right to Fight”, by Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo, where Marshall argues that much of the Republican opposition to the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to the post of Secretary of Defense was driven by the fact that this is President Barack Obama's final refutation of the entire neo-conservative movement, the system of international relations thought that led the United States to what were suppose to be simple military conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq (where, according to Dick Cheney, US troops would be “welcomed as liberators”). Marshall contends that: “everything Barack Obama has done since coming into office has been to unwind the thicket of commitments, practices and open wars begun under George W. Bush.” Marshall goes on to argue that the Middle East is essentially “yesterday's news”, a reality that Barack Obama realizes, and that “as the US has bled itself dry in the Near East completely different futures are being created by the so-called BRIC countries, with the US at risk of being left behind.”
One area where a new reality is being created is in the field of armed intervention itself, the cudgel that the neoconservatives hoped (and with Iran, still hope) to use to forge a new, pro-American Middle East. In the past couple of weeks a number of laudatory op-ed pieces have appeared in praise of France's intervention in Mali, including one by that giant of French Leftist thought, Bernard-Henri Lévy himself, who praised French President Francois Hollande for, as Lévy put it, waging “a just war”, taking the lead in opposing the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Mali when the great powers (i.e., the United States) and “Blue Helmets of the United Nations”, were missing in action. It's worth noting that the Pres. Holllande and French troops in Timbuktu were greeted as liberators by Malians chanting “thank you, France!”
The song “Franco-Unamerican” was written after the United States had invaded Iraq on a pretext that many saw as dubious and after the mission in Afghanistan had seemed to have lost its original focus – namely to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The narrator of the song rattles off a litany of issues in the world, which he personally is powerless to affect, a situation that only serves to depress him. His response is simply to try to disconnect from the world; as he wryly notes about issues that do not directly affect him, particularly foreign policy issues: “your dilemmas are my distractions...”
But this line gets at a much too common attitude among Americans, and one that has deep impacts on our foreign policy, the fact that we simply do tend to view events beyond our shores as “distractions”. The United States invaded Afghanistan with little practical knowledge of that country's history or its complex inter-ethnic relationships. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran noted in his book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, what little practical knowledge Americans had gained though working in Afghanistan in the decades preceding the invasion was summarily dismissed by war planners in the Pentagon and Bush administration since it didn't fit the mold of what they thought should be done in Afghanistan; namely, the fool's errand of trying to graft an American-style democracy onto a country with no practical experience in dealing with that form of government. In Iraq, the post-invasion phase took a page directly from America's Cold War playbook: depose a troublesome head-of-state in favor of one more compliant to our interests. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt once summed this notion up with the quip that: “he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard.” Unfortunately for the US, the Iraqis had a different opinion over how their country should be ruled in the post-Hussein days.
The French mission in Mali is succeeding for precisely the same reason the US failed in Iraq and Afghanistan: France knows Mali well, not surprising since Mali was once a colony of France. While this gives France an intimate level of knowledge of the region, it also gives them a connection on a deeper level as well. Lévy goes so far to note that the French intervention is in a way a repayment to the Malian troops who served in the Free French forces during World War II. To France, therefore, Mali is not simply “a distraction”.
France also managed to avoid one of the pitfalls of American hubris in Iraq and Afghanistan: even though the Malian government is in a state of paralysis following a short-lived coup last spring, France is not making nation-building or government reform part of their mandate in Mali. The French intervention is designed to use a mighty military force to drive the al-Qaeda affiliated militias out of Mali's cities, the mission will then be turned over to an African Union peacekeeping force of troops drawn from neighboring countries. It is, in effect, the war plan preached by former General Colin Powell during the first Iraq War; the “Powell Doctrine” of overwhelming force paired with clear mission objectives and a definitive exit strategy. It was a doctrine that the Bush administration stunningly ignored in both Afghanistan and Iraq, though it is one that the French seem wise enough to follow now.
Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancox
Africa, Al-Qaeda, France, Humanitarian Intervention, Mali