For months reports have covered, in almost apocalyptic language, the Islamist takeover of a chunk of the Sahara much larger than Germany. They invoke images of fried desert wastelands and ruins of fabulous cities the likes of Timbuktu over run with God-crazy fanatics. From my understanding of the realities on the ground, this is not far from the truth. Reports of severed limbs and punishments of that sort have been confirmed and reconfirmed. The government of Mali is ineffectively tripping over itself trying to figure out where half its country went and how to get it back. Meanwhile the African Union dithers, and excusably so, seeing as its member countries lack the money or experience to keep most of their own houses in order. So a huge chunk of the Sahara is left to decay into a Taliban flavored hell, set to become the sort of training ground Afghanistan was to Bin Laden for his affiliates in North Africa.
And then the French came. When I first read about this intervention, I asked myself, “Why on Earth would France ever want to be part of this?” The answer though, is pretty simple: because of where on Earth this is. Once upon a time France owned this particular chunk of desert along with every other country bordering it. Post World War Two, France was particularly vicious in efforts to hold on to its crumbling empire – in stark contrast to Great Britain in India and in like form with the Dutch in Indonesia. The Vietnam War was spawned out of Indochina’s revolt against Paris, and the Algerian deserts north of Mali were soaked with blood in that country’s bid for independence. French efforts ultimately failed across the world, yet despite losing an empire, they maintained a large nuclear force independent of NATO, an impressive military budget, the second largest exclusive economic zone in the world after the United States, and a permanent UN Security Council veto.
I’m not French, I do not pretend to have a finger on the pulse of their national feelings. But I can still take a fairly informed guess as to why they carried out this intervention. In the past couple years France has intervened in both West Africa and North Africa, in Ivory Coast and in Libya, respectively. Both of these were success stories. Both were in a traditionally French sphere of influence. Both showed the world that France was still an important player. And here I think is the basic explanation for France’s current intervention – France still sees itself as a great power and still sees this part of the world as the natural place to project that power. Here’s the rub though: France isn’t a great power. Its population is significantly less than a third that of the United States, its economy is shuddering, and it could not even sustain its Libyan bombing campaign without heavy American assistance.
The Libyan intervention was under the umbrella of NATO and sanctioned by the United Nations. The Ivory Coast intervention against Gbagbo was also UN sanctioned. This Malian intervention wasn’t. I can’t say for sure if the French intervention was entirely a benign defense of a helpless government against radical extremists. My guess is that it probably wasn’t Other than driving back extremists, I think the French are demonstrating their power and maintaining a sphere of influence. This sets a bad standard and will ultimately hurt United States interests for two reasons. Firstly, the French are considered a core component of “The West”, and so when they inflame Islamic radicals with neo imperialistic actions, those same Islamic radicals are likely to also direct their anger at the titan of the West, America. Secondly, it is not good for an ally of the United States to set a standard of revisiting past spheres of influence. One need only think of Russia’s “near abroad” or China’s South Sea claims to understand why this is a problematic standard and a potential headache for our own country. But strategically America can’t condemn an ally for taking initiative in the global fight against terror. What it should instead do is push France to gain UN backing for its new war. This will at least legitimize what will inevitably be seen in the region as yet another western intervention, while also distancing America from neo imperialist French impulses.