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Crisis in Mali 101: A Turning Point for U.S. Foreign Policy?

Truman Project and Center for National Policy

In the past two weeks, Mali–known primarily for its rich musical traditions and the whimsical connotations of the city of Timbuktu–has become front-page news. The crisis there is important because it indicates the type of activity the U.S. will see from major terrorist threats in the years ahead. If left unresolved, the events in Mali could result in a growth of terrorist operations in Africa.

Read on for an explanation of the major players and events in this escalating crisis.

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  • Ben Goldhirsh

    fascinating. thanks so much for sharing. I think this is going to get really weird and scary. I don't think the Western governments will be able to stomach deeper engagement given the costs/results so far witnessed across Iraq and Afghanistan. I think this leaves N. Africa with an inspired set of insurgents, with loose borders and governing systems due both to the shifts of Arab Spring and the existing realities of that region, that can allow for greater resource aggregation. It feels like the perfect argument for the value of development aid on the earlier side, as well as the need for an international fighting force that can alleviate the costs per country by unifying overhead, infrastructure, and equipment. But crap, we don't have that. Do you at Truman have a sense of what the administrations appetite is to get involved here at greater depth? Is there a sense of how strong the native fighting forces might be and what this fight looks like? I've been really nervous watching this evolve and I'm not less nervous now.

    • Daniel Gaynor

      Ben, thanks for the note. Huge fans of you guys at GOOD, and Truman is glad to be posting our experts' work on your site.

      Couldn't agree more with regard to the need for international development/foreign aid in countries like Mali. It's widely agreed in the defense community that international development--roads, schools, bridges, infrastructure, water, etc.--has a major impact in serving as preventative national security. In other words, it roots out sources of instability, which, if left unaddressed, result in breeding grounds for movements like that in Mali.

      With regard to your two questions, no one knows for sure. It's widely seen as unlikely that the U.S. will get physically involved in Mali beyond logistical and operational support (drones, cargo planes, troop movements, etc.).

      If anything, some experts expect that the U.S. will assist in training African forces to contain the threats in the country. Building up -- rapidly -- a domestic fighting force is a critical priority, much like it is in Afghanistan today.

      Thanks again for the comments -- looking forward to working with you guys.

      • Ben Goldhirsh

        Thanks Daniel, just from a member to member perspective, I'm excited to be teaming up. From a GOOD HQ perspective, excited about howe we can help you connect, discuss, and engage all of us around the critical variables in the international space. Wild times indeed and it feels like the next couple of decades have so much potential to move in the great or crappy direction.

  • Bradley Urso

    This just kind of seems like neo-colonialism to me. Shouldn't African forces be responsible for this? and how does the addition of more western forces fighting in foreign countries look to the powerless people who are prone to support terrorist organizations and who are recruited by these organizations? I feel like this legitimizes the justification that Al-Qaeda implements. Not that it is legitimate justification but I feel that is the reality of what will be the reaction to military intervention by European forces.

    • Ben Goldhirsh

      I agree that western forces can create an amplifying beacon for insurgent activity, but I don't think that is the question so much as what responsibility do international forces have for involving themselves in domestic matters - is it when human rights are threatened? is it when international ripple effects cause concern? I think the status quo speaks to the latter being the more powerful motivator, which doesn't really feel great, but just feels like what we see. Then there is the question that if you remove the latter, and are left with the former, should you let that issue sort itself out domestically - e.g. nobody landed on our shores to force us to end slavery? Kant wrote a piece called universal history that argues that you can't force a nation to evolve to democratic rule but must wait for countries to navigate a brutal path there alone, and only then can global cooperation between democracies exist. I think he's a wise fellow, and that piece is super prescient when you look at the nation building challenges across history, but I also think in the centuries since he wrote that piece, there is impatience with the status quo, and a want for a global union to get there faster. Anyhow, here's the Kant link.

      • Bradley Urso

        That's a really good point Ben. I saw some connection to colonialism because of France's colonial past, especially in North Africa. I appreciate your emphasis on human rights in your post. I think because we live in a more connected global society there may be an emergence of an identity which is of global citizens. I agree with Kant on the idea that force can't bring about a true change from what I read; however as you stated the impatience global society has towards the violation of human rights sort of demands a reaction. My response is couldn't we do better than bombs, military force, ect as the response. Aren't we smart enough as a society to realize that positive support and other ways that human beings can be built up are more efficient in changing personal preconceptions and social norms. I feel like violence begets more violence. I would hope leaders could learn from past failures when forced was used in attempting to change government systems and shift their policies accordingly. The point you make about how much more important building infrastructure is to adress these issue I think is so true. Really insightful perspective.

      • Victoria EG

        Ben, you bring up important questions; wish I had the answers. From a US perspective, I think that the motivators you list are not either/or, they just have different constituencies. You want multilateral support to intervene somewhere, you need the former, to invoke the Right to Protect or a similar justification. You need to legally justify risking American troops and treasure abroad to the American people themselves, you better have the latter.

        Re: Slavery in the US. True, nobody landed on our shores to free our slaves - but when years beforehand, when the soon-to-be-American people of the colonies were in conflict with the British government, the French certainly showed up in force to pick a side. Interesting that there was political will for enabling American revolution, but not for ending American slavery, even as European nations banned it at home and in their colonies.