I'm the farthest thing from an expert on Mali and I'm still catching up on events there after my Asia trip, so what follows is tentative and should be taken with appropriate skepticism. Based on what I've read so far, however, here are my initial comments and queries.
1. Remember Libya? NATO intervention in Libya is hardly the only reason that there is trouble today in Mali, but it's not irrelevant either. Why? Because arms flows from Qaddafi's collapsing state fueled the Tuareg insurgency in northern Mali and contributed to the collapse of the central government. Qaddafi's ouster is still worthy of celebration on its own terms, but the effects on Mali remind us that even positive developments in one place can have negative repercussions elsewhere. And if events continue deteriorate in Mali, the net benefit of NATO's decision to go for regime change in Libya will look dicier.
2. What is the U.S. national interest? What exactly is the U.S. "strategic interest" in Mali? It's not natural resources, despite what you sometimes hear. It's not "counter-terrorism" per se, unless you believe that all extremists have to be hounded into submission no matter where they are located, what their aims and capabilities are, and what it would cost to subdue them. More than anything else, the Western lurch into Mali shows the recurring tendency for great powers (or even medium powers like France) to get involved in places first and then define them as "vital interests" later. In other words, a place becomes "strategic" or "vital" if some great power gets engaged there, no matter where it is located, what its resources or capabilities are, or how its present or future ondition might actually affect the livelihood or security of the intervening power. Put differently: if Mali can be seen as a vital interest, then anywhere can.
3. What has the United States been up to there? Ever since the opening of Africa Command, the United States military has been actively partnering with various regimes, conducting drone strikes and special operations (in a few places) and training activities (in many). What's worrisome is that the imbroglio in Mali occurred even though the U.S. military has had an active training mission there for some time. Unfortunately, that effort apparently failed to produce either a fully loyal fighting force or a fully effective one. Some individuals who received U.S. training have now joined the rebel forces, and the troops that remained to the government haven't fought very well against them. Which raises the question of whether Africa Command's overall approach to building a more stable Africa is working. I'd like to know if the Pentagon understood that its efforts in Mali weren't going very well before this latest round of trouble began; that's certainly not the impression one gets from Africa Command's website.
4. The "Safe Haven" Myth Lives! Perhaps not surprisingly, the justification for military intervention is similar to the one that Barack Obama offered for escalation in Afghanistan in 2009: it's the need to prevent Mali from becoming a "safe haven" that could be used to organize attacks elsewhere (i.e., on France itself). But is there any real evidence that the extremists in Mali are plotting to attack France, the United States, or anyone else? Even if they were, is there good evidence that they have the will and the skill to carry out such activities, or that the consequences of a successful attack would be greater than the costs of French (and other) efforts to root them out? And is it possible that intervention in Mali might actually focus the extremists' attention on the intervenors, instead of the central government? These questions do not necessarily add up to a hard-and-fast rejection of intervention, but they should give us pause.
5. Is popular support sufficient justification? Press reports (including Drezner here) suggest that there is considerable popular support for Western intervention among Mali's population. If true, this aspect of the case is simultaneously: a) not surprising, b) reassuring, and c) not dispositive. If the local population were strongly opposed, then intervention would be a fool's errand. But the mere fact that the local population wants well-armed outsiders to protect them does not by itself mean that it is in the outsiders' interest to provide this service. And populations who are initially grateful for foreign intervention have an unfortunate tendency to change their minds over time, particularly if the conflict escalates and if the foreigners overstay their welcome.
To repeat: I'm just getting up to speed on this conflict and the above is preliminary. Frankly, I hope the issue is resolved quickly and that I don't need to learn more about it. Why? Because I usually end up learning a lot about global problems when they prove to be enduring, protracted and difficult and when they are accompanied by lots of blunders. For our sake, France's sake, and most of all the sake of Mali's people, I hope this turns out to be a very short-lived affair. I'll bet President Hollande wants that even more than I do.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.