The French decision to intervene militarily in Mali, a former French colony, has important implications for Mali, France and the United States.
Mali used to be a basically benign West African state with a democratically elected government. The United States was helping to train and supply its armed forces. The country is almost entirely Muslim, largely desert, with a population of 14 million and few resources. It is landlocked, with borders on Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.
In March of last year, the Malian military, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, an American-trained officer, overthrew its democratically elected government. Shortly thereafter, the northern two-thirds of the country seceded.
The rebellion in the north was first dominated by Tuaregs, who were then supplanted by an Islamist group, Ansar Dine, which France and the United States claim has ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Both had brought arms with them from Libya when the rebels there, supported by the West, overthrew the government of Moammar Gadhafi, whom the Malians had served as mercenaries.
This month the rebels from the north began to move south toward Bamako, the capital. Malian armed forces showed themselves unable to mount a credible defense. The French and Mali's African neighbors, alarmed at the progress of the Tuaregs and Ansar Dine, first tried to mobilize an African force, supported by the West, to resist the rebels. They were able to get U.N. Security Council support, but the rebels weren't waiting for France and its allies to organize resistance as they continued to move south.
To forestall the fall of the capital, on Friday the French, with British and American support, put several hundred troops into Mali and began bombing northern Malian towns held by the rebels from bases in Chad and France.
What does this mean? The answer depends on where one is standing, since it has different significance in France, in its former colonies in Africa and in the United States.
For France it is a question of demonstrating to Mali and other former French colonies that Paris still has teeth and retains the option to support or not support its African client states through military intervention. It has chosen to defend Mali. It has so far chosen not to defend the Central African Republic, where that country's president, Francois Bozize, is also at risk of being overthrown by armed rebels -- the "Seleka" alliance from the north, whose forces also are nearing their nation's capital, Bangui.
France has serious financial problems and its relatively new president, Francois Hollande, is being criticized at home for being wobbly in the face of critical economic decisions. In financial terms it might seem like the worst of times for him to take France into an expensive war in Africa, particularly one which could go on for a long time and one which France could even lose. (The northern Malian rebels may just dodge the bombs and push on for Bamako.) On the other hand, going into Mali makes Mr. Hollande look decisive and, if it works, farsighted in terms of sheltering France's friends in Africa. It is also something he can do without having to deal with the sometimes pesky French parliament.
For Mali and other former French colonies, it is humiliating to admit that they themselves are incapable of turning back the threat presented by the northern Malian rebels. French aircraft bombing Malian towns and French troops defending the capital of an African country carries with it the strong, pungent odor of neocolonialism, whatever "terrorist" label the French may try to put on the Malian rebels. The whole thing is made significantly worse by the fact that what is left of Mali is now led by a military junta directed by an American-trained officer.
For the United States, supporting French troops in Mali, based on the belief that the rebels may have ties to a shadowy branch of al-Qaida, the imagery is terrible. U.S. forces are helping a former colonial power intervene militarily in an African country that has been independent since 1960 in order to preserve in power an unelected military government headed by a U.S.-trained army captain. What is this about?
First of all, U.S. military leaders are looking for business. With the Iraq war over and the Afghanistan war winding down, they are looking for new conflicts to justify their requests for billions of dollars to fund their activities around the world. This need becomes particularly sharp with budget cuts looking the Department of Defense and every other department of government in the eye.
With the ends of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars Americans have a right to expect a peace dividend from the Pentagon. It should take cuts consistent with those that Americans will be asked to endure in other spending -- on education, health care and infrastructure.
The military can try to avoid budget cuts by coming up with new "wars of opportunity" festooned with claims of al-Qaida and other "terrorist" involvement. These might include Yemen, Syria, Somalia and even Mali, as well as an argument that America can't walk away from Afghanistan, even after 11 years.
There is no way to argue that anything that happens in Mali presents a threat to the United States. Satellite and drone coverage can continue to confirm this. If France and its former African colonies want to put troops in and bomb targets in Mali to protect the military government in Bamako, let them do so, but without American involvement.
The U.S. Congress already should be climbing all over the Obama administration to find out why it is involving us in this conflict, which is of no interest to America.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).