Welcome to Mali, home of sand, poverty and forgettable Matthew McConaughey movies. If you don't remember hearing anything out of this North African nation in--well--ever, that's okay; most people aren't even aware of its existence. But thanks to the unpredictability of foreign policy, we may have to start paying attention.
In a nutshell, here's what's happening: In the past four years, the U.S. has been heavily involved in counterterrorism work in Mali and other Saharan countries, providing military training and equipment to their armed forces. These armed forces, theoretically, could then do our job for us, keeping out Islamic terrorists in these nations without requiring a direct military presence on our part. As so many things do, it probably seemed like a great idea at the time. So what's the situation now? Well, a revolt has broken out in the north, a revolt which is both gaining steam and has fallen under the control of said Islamic militants, namely Al-Qaeda and assorted other jihadist groups, which is always fun--especially since some of the army officers who received our military aid defected to their side. To make things worse, another of those army officers we just invested time and money training took it upon himself to overthrow the government and establish authoritarian rule. So the choice now is between a strong-arming tyrant in the capital and rebels proclaiming a mixture of democracy and radical Islamism. Is this ringing any bells?
As usual, there's all kinds of potential geopolitical ramifications at work. A success by Al-Qaeda and company in taking over Mali, or even in carving out a chunk of territory, would firmly establish Islamic terrorists in North Africa, creating a whole new front next to Libya and Egypt, which will become so much more stable as a result. As for what the U.S. has been doing in response, we've already pledged to send drones in to help out the government and the French, who have sent in a handful of ground troops and are being their typical effectual selves. Where our involvement goes from there is anyone's guess, but more importantly, the whole episode is another argument against such an involved foreign policy.
While I still don't like to knock Bush too much for how the War on Terror played out, it is undeniable that the goal of retaliation against our enemies became badly entwined with the dubious aim of "building democracy" in the Middle East. We saw it in Iraq, we've seen it in Obama's interventionist policy in the Arab Spring, and now it appears we may see some form of it in North Africa. The idea--under both Bush and Obama--has been to establish and safeguard democracy in the Arab world, partly because it's the "right thing to do" and partly because it serves our interests. There are any number of reasons why this has been coming back to bite us, but the main one is this: However popular it is or isn't, a democracy/republic/constitutional government can not simply be called into being one day. It's something that has to evolve over decades, even centuries. The West doesn't have such a form of government because of its religion or culture or superior technology (although those didn't hurt); it developed democracy after long periods of interaction and competition between elements of society. I can't write an essay on it, but the point is that you have to work with the political culture and structures you find, not simply create carbon copies of whatever the U.S. has. No one in Washington, Republican or Democrat, seems to understand that, and we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
Bottom line: I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to the idea that we ought to end our foreign involvement in its current form altogether. In a fight between authoritarian rulers and Islamist democrats, what's the scenario where we win? I don't see a way out of it. Maybe these areas are best left alone.