Obama and Mali: Don't Talk About It

There was not a single question about Mali yesterday at Barack Obama’s last press conference of his first term. There were only six questions (thanks to rewording of the questions and the long responses that Obama favors): three on raising the debt ceiling, two on guns and one on the fact that Obama is not that sociable and has yet to nominate a woman for a position in his inner circle.

Not a single question was posed by the foreign press, a sign that the White House would prefer to avoid the subject. The few American journalists who could have asked provocative questions (Why such inaction while the United States has opposed the insurgency in Mali since 2002? Or worse: Leading from behind is one thing, but behind the French?) didn’t get to speak…

If European diplomats are to be believed, Mali is the type of subject that Americans don’t care to discuss, much less worry about. For several months American diplomacy has dragged its feet, so to speak — understandable, given the Afghan war debt and other burdens that are costing Americans heavily, but certainly this administration is none too pleased that others are doing what they are not.

For the past few months, according to these same European diplomats, the Pentagon has been more flexible, asserting the necessity of using the proper tools against al-Qaida (drones). But American diplomacy, notably in the United Nations, has dug in its heels, believing that Malians should be put at the head of the operation — even if it means waiting until they’re ready — and of course favoring political moves that will assure the return of democracy.

Behind the scenes, Americans believe that everything that has happened is due to France’s intervention in Libya. In short, it’s up to Hollande to make amends for what Sarkozy did.

But now that France has begun its operation, cooperation has been acquired and the Pentagon has promised logistical help and intelligence support.

The media has racked its brains to find specialists on the region. Yesterday on the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS), Emira Woods from the Institute for Policy Studies recalled France’s colonial past, bringing to light the economic interests of French petrol companies in Mali and gauging that the intervention was in fact not sanctioned under international law.

“And I think alarm bells have to go off when a nation-state like France, a former colonial power, goes in and launches unilateral military action,” she says.

For this specialist, such a unilateral operation can only complicate the situation for civilians and provoke a political crisis that could not be resolved by military means.

EMIRA WOODS: Well, the French are the colonial powers. They are formerly the colonial power there in West Africa and in Mali in particular.

And so they have a historic tie. I think you also have some more recent ties with French oil companies and just in part of the exploration of oil in Mali as well. So there’s some economic ties as well that we shouldn’t underestimate. But clearly what France has done is a unilateral action.

And I think alarm bells have to go off when a nation-state like France, a former colonial power, goes in and launches unilateral military action. The concern is that, you know, we have a United Nations, an international body that should bring forward the collective will of the international community when there are crises like this.

But France really stepped forward and came to — has come to the UN today, days after launching the aerial bombardment in Mali. And I think the concern is that there cannot be really a military solution to this crisis in Mali. The crisis has its roots in political and also economic processes, people in the northern part of the country feeling completely marginalized from the rest of the country.

So, clearly, what had you had was an opportunity, because of the intervention, the NATO intervention in Libya, unleashing weapons both from Gadhafi’s coffers, as well as from the international community, weapons flowing from Libya across borders of Algeria into Mali to be able to actually create a crisis and further destabilize Northern Mali.

So I think what you have is a situation where unilateral intervention could create complications down the road both for civilians that could be targeted in these airstrikes, as well as for further complicating a political crises that may not be resolved militarily.

The other program interviewee, J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, recalled that the United States’ efforts had focused on a comprehensive solution including political, economic and security dimensions.

“And unfortunately,” he added, “the adoption of a unilateral effort on the part of the French has more or less cleared the table.”

He also estimated that the French intervention will galvanize the rebels.

There’s not too much enthusiasm, as you can see.

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