Given the increasingly large role that the U.S. military is playing in the war in Mali, it is high time that Congress and the public have the opportunity to examine the whys and wherefores of what promises to be a long struggle in the African desert.
So far the United States is refueling the French warplanes that are bombing the rebels in northern Mali. The U.S. tankers are also probably protected in the air by U.S. fighter jets. U.S. forces are providing the French with intelligence on rebel forces and other targets in northern Mali. This intelligence is possibly being coordinated by U.S. Special Operations forces in Mali, even though they might not qualify in the strictest sense as combat "boots on the ground." U.S. aircraft also are transporting African forces from neighboring countries to fight in Mali alongside the French.
While all of this constitutes a growing U.S. commitment to the conflict, Congress and the American people have not had the opportunity to examine President Barack Obama's rationale for the expenditure of U.S. assets and money. The conflict is under way in a country that is far away and of marginal interest to the United States.
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires that Congress approve involvement in a war within 60 days. The French war in Mali and U.S. support of it began Jan. 11. That makes the deadline for satisfying the act March 12. The Obama administration does not like the constraints of the War Powers resolution. It also faces suspicion among the public that the U.S. military, finished in Iraq, finishing in Afghanistan and facing budget cuts, might be looking for a new war to justify its big bite of federal spending.
Congress and many Americans favor the limits that the War Powers measure puts on a president in taking the country to war, particularly potentially endless wars. Mali has every appearance of becoming an endless war. The French have quickly taken two major towns in rebel-held northern Mali, Gao and Timbuktu. At the same time they have not defeated the rebels, who have simply faded into the desert and mountains in the region. Unless the French plan to stay there in force for a long time, the rebels will simply wait them out and come back, as the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan.
The U.S. government must address systematically and in public the policy question of whether America wants to be involved in what is essentially a French neo-colonial enterprise in Africa. We say the answer is no.