Monthly Archives: January 2013

Modest Goals, Modest Results

Those who bother to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy (and let’s be honest, most Americans just don’t care) often focus on the results we’ve failed to achieve.  In the Middle East, as elsewhere, it’s true that many desirable results have gone unachieved: the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is so moribund that many question whether a two-state solution is even a realistic goal anymore, Syria continues to disintegrate, Iran’s centrifuges spin on, a new spasm of violent unrest grips Egypt, and sectarian violence continues to thrive in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What’s new?  The Middle East has problems.

But the president’s foreign policy rests on the premise that we can’t solve all of those problems.  Because he didn’t say he was going to stop the killing in Syria, its continuation isn’t a policy failure.  It’s a tragedy, but not a failure.  You can’t “fail” to get results you never tried to achieve.


The bold international actions of President Obama’s first term were the intervention in Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden.  The former served its immediate goal of preventing a massacre in Benghazi by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces—though some unfairly point to Libya’s current disarray as evidence of the intervention’s failure, as if letting Qaddafi fight and kill longer would have somehow prevented the current violence.  The latter was straightforward, if risky—bringing bin Laden to justice (or, as it happened, bringing justice to him) was a foreign policy goal no president would have been likely to modify or scrap.

Both of these actions, different as they were, were relatively quick and small-scale.  In both cases, we got results.  But otherwise, the administration is largely letting things play out.  The president does not aspire to build or liberate nations.  He’s stepping back and slowing down.  He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, where our influence has since withered considerably, and his advisors now debating just how small a force to leave in Afghanistan, where we never had much influence at all.

This is not to say that the President has shown no initiative.  It’s just that the goals and the posture are modest.  President Obama reached out to Iran in an effort to strike a deal on its nuclear program but, once spurned, became rather incoherent and indecisive.  He’s given some financial support to aid efforts in and around Syria, and deployed Patriot missile batteries to Turkey (defensively and in keeping with our NATO obligations) but only mobilized meager diplomatic military resources to try to stop the conflict.  He’s made uncomfortable noises about Israeli settlements, but never got in Netanyahu’s face.  The arc of history, as Obama is fond of saying, is long.  His America speaks softly, and no one expects it to use that big stick.

Some believe that this scaling back of our ambitions is exactly the adjustment America needs, especially after a decade of war that it’s very easy to argue wasn’t worth it.

The president is cautious and inward-looking, and so is the public.  Even the administration’s political opponents have difficulty finding criticisms of his foreign policy that will resonate with anyone (that difficulty may help explain Republicans’ collective leap to exploit the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack in the final weeks before last November’s election).

Whatever one thinks of the “Obama Doctrine,” it is decidedly non-grandiose: expect neither fiascoes nor breakthroughs.  And ignore the people who say “we’ve failed” when people kill each other and countries fall apart far away.  Failure is the wrong word.  We didn’t fail.  For better or worse, we’ve decided not to try.

What is Going On in Mali?

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the conflict in Northern Mali.  The conflict has changed dramatically since January 16, 2012, however.  And with last week’s intervention by the French military and today’s seizure of several dozen hostages at a gas field in Algeria, Western populations are increasingly wondering: “Mali?  Where is that?”

Operation Malian Freedom

Operation Malian Freedom

Here’s the situation.  Northern Mali, also known as Azawad, is populated mainly by the Tuareg, a Berber people who inhabit the arid interior of West Africa between the mostly Arab north and the mostly black coastal areas.  Many Tuareg served in the Libyan army, which disintegrated in 2011 during the Libyan uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, sending both Tuareg and weapons flooding into neighboring countries.

In Mali, this influx catalyzed an insurgency movement aiming to liberate Azawad from Malian control (although Tuaregs rebelled in Mali several times before the fall of Qaddafi).  The insurgents organized under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).  In March, the Malian army lost faith in the president’s ability to fight the insurgents, and removed him from office.  Two weeks later, the MNLA took advantage of the instability in Bamako and declared Azawad independent.  At that point, it controlled virtually all of Azawad, which makes up more than half the country—an area roughly the size of Texas.

Sounds like it’s just an ethnic war.  Why all this talk about jihadists?

So where does al-Qaeda come in?  Well, there have been militant Islamist groups in North Africa for decades, and during this last Tuareg uprising, a group from Azawad called Ansar al-Dine had aligned itself with the MNLA against the government.  But once the fighting died down, Ansar al-Dine began implementing a harsh form of sharia and calling for the complete overthrow of the Malian government.  In April, the group announced that sharia was to be implemented in Timbuktu.  It also rejected the MNLA’s call for independence.  Some amputations and executions were reported.

Since the spring, the rift between the Islamists and the Tuareg nationalists has widened such that the MNLA supported Operation Serval, the French intervention launched last week to counter the Islamist fighters.

Today, the French army fought militants in the recently conquered town of Diabaly.  The battlefront extends across Mali’s narrow midsection, separating the government-controlled South from the rebel-occupied North.  Meanwhile dozens of foreign nationals, including Americans, were taken hostage at a gas field in Algeria, just across the border from Libya.  Algerian forces have surrounded the field, but the standoff has yet to be resolved.  The attack has raised eyebrows in the energy industry, which generally considers Algeria a safe place to do business.  It appears that the seizure is a response to Operation Serval.  Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group that seeks to overthrow the Algerian government and attack Western targets, has taken credit.

Why France?

The French public supports the intervention almost two to one.  A variety of causes may be behind this support, including a sense of responsibility for a former colony, economic interests (Mali is a major gold producer and borders Niger, a vital uranium exporter), and security concerns.

France originally planned to provide aerial support and logistics to an African-led intervention.  Alassane Ouattara, the President of the Ivory Coast, was planning to take the lead in Mali in his capacity as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  The plan was for African ground troops to restore security in Mali, with support from France, but without French boots on the ground.  However, when French bombardment proved unable to stop Ansar al-Dine from beginning an offensive aimed at taking the whole country, President Francois Hollande sent in troops.

It’s not just France that cares about Mali.  Control of such forbidding territory gives jihadist groups breathing room and access to weapons (especially after the implosion of Libya) and cash (from ransoms and exploitation of South American drug-smuggling networks that have begun taking advantage of weak states in West Africa).  I should note that in mid-nineties Afghanistan,  another little-known fundamentalist force called the Taliban began to thrive under similar conditions: lawlessness, a glut of weapons, and a source of income (charging Pakistani truckers for safe passage on Afghan roads).

Since 9/11, many of us dearly wish someone had nipped that in the bud

UPDATE: The BBC reports that many hostages have escaped.  The captors’ demands include a full French withdrawal from Mali.