Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Intervention in Mali - Who's the Enemy?

French Freedom Fighter
The narrative reads just the same as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The West needs to intervene in Mali because the North was captured by groups of al Quaeda influenced and supported Jihadis who will launch regional and even international terrorist attacks from any secure base they can take.  But I'm not sure that's the real reason, even as I am certain it should not be.  It seems likely that it has been judged to be the most effective marketing message supporting intervention, like selling laundry detergent on the basis of how it smells, rather than how well it cleans your clothes.

Mali is just the latest epicenter for the argument over international humanitarian intervention.  But it shouldn't be.  Mali is not like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria.  In general, I support the theory of humanitarian intervention.  I believe that wealthy, powerful nations have some responsibility to the rest of the world, and to sit idly by and watch thousands of innocent civilians be slaughtered by powerful military or para-military forces, as they did in Rwanda and Bosnia, is just as much a war crime as any prosecuted at Nuremburg.  The key, however, must be a realistic assessment of the benefits and shortcomings of such an intervention.  It is clear, for example, that military action against the regime in Syria would widen the conflict and result in more death and suffering, while making any post-conflict rapprochement more difficult.

Mali is different in a number of ways.  By tradition, the Malian people are colorful and inclusive, a community of merchants, farmers and traders who love music, dancing and celebration.  While 90% Muslim, Mali was not one of those dark grey nations of fundamentalist brutality and vicious misogyny. The population in the south, outside the harsh environment of the Sahara, is African, largely descended from slaves captured farther south.  In the North, the population - about 10% of the country as a whole - is more Arab and Berber, with stronger historical ties to Egypt and Arabia than with Africa.  So when the latest in a series of Tuareg separatist revolts was co-opted by Arab Jihadists, primarily funded by Wahabbi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, the Malian population had every reason to fear.  And sure enough, the foreign occupiers imposed a savage interpretation of Shari'a Law, requiring beards and veils, banning music and dance, destroying ancient Sufi shrines and mutilating those it found to be criminals.

It's an interesting thing about fundamentalist religious law.  It is always something that is desired by a minority, and must be imposed on the larger population.  People very seldom want their leadership to control their lives at that level, and they aren't typically overjoyed to have such a stringent set of rules enforced in such a violent and uncompromising fashion.  So the Malian government asked the world for help.  And their former Colonial master, France, had fortunately maintained close economic and diplomatic ties to the government in Bamako.

So keep these distinctions in mind when you read about the conflict in Mali, and think about yet another Western intervention.  First, the West isn't acting to topple the existing regime, they are defending it.  Sure, the coup makes that somewhat problematic, but certainly not so much as an arbitrary decision to impose "regime change".  Second, the government ASKED for help.  This isn't an invasion, but welcome assistance to a government and a people who are not powerful enough to protect themselves and their way of life.  And this isn't, no matter what they tell you, about "terrorists".  Islamic fundamentalists, Jihadis and terrorists are all completely different things.  But the foreigners are the ones who invaded Mali, with the intention of imposing an unwanted and primitive theocratic government, one that is the antithesis of democratic governance and human rights.  And finally, for once, the US is not taking the lead.  The French are perfectly capable of handling this intervention, are better suited to it culturally and linguistically, and they are the ones with all the history in the region.  If they want airlift, intelligence or air tanker support from the US, I can't see why that would be a problem.  The US should take the support role rather than the lead much more often, and this is a very good opportunity for America and the world to learn that lesson.

But most of all this is a clear-cut case of a weak nation in need of help, and the wealthy and powerful nations recognizing their obligation to provide that assistance.  This time it's not about oil, not about terrorism, not even about American Exceptionalism - it's just an opportunity to defend the powerless against the powerful, and the world could use a little more of that these days.


  1. hey, that's a pretty good post. I liked the parts about the responsibility of rich nations, and also the part about how religious whackadoodleism (you may have used a less accurate term) has to be imposed by a minority on the rest of the peeps.

  2. So keep these distinctions in mind when you read about the conflict in Mali, and think about yet another Western intervention. First, the West isn't acting to topple the existing regime, they are defending it.

    Didn't the rebels get their heavy weapons as a result of our "regime change" (that wasn't regime change, cross Obama's heart) in Libya?

    “The Westerners didn’t want Qaddafi, and they got rid of him, and they created problems for all of us,” he said. “When you chased Qaddafi out in that barbaric fashion, you created 10 more Qaddafis. The whole Saharo-Sahelian region has become unlivable.”

  3. Didn't the rebels get their heavy weapons as a result of our "regime change" (that wasn't regime change, cross Obama's heart) in Libya?

    Your linked article indicates nothing of the sort. Rather, it implies secondhand weapons migrating from Qaddafi's realm into Mali, and I have a difficult time understanding why you think this is somehow Obama's fault.

    The quote you mined, is referring to Westerners in the form of NATO and the UN and other intra-national parties. Again, I think you are stretching to lay this at Obama's feet.

    The attempts to demonize and depose Qaddafi go way back. Why do you not feel it is just as appropriate to blame those prior administrations, other than immediacy?

  4. Further: Most of the rest of the world has gotten their weapons and delivery systems from the US. It is a particular blackstain that we have armed most of teh people who then take up those arms against us. I do not argue that; in fact, as an artist, I kind of like the sickening symmetry.

    But it is not reasonable to charge all of that American history to one current President, just because you hate him and want to assign every bad thing to him because of irrational hatreds.

  5. First, the West isn't acting to topple the existing regime, they are defending it.

    Although I will express the opposing attitude that it is far from the first time the West has intervened to defend an existing regime. It's not a good thing just because the "West" is on one side or another of the conflict.

    1. Very true, but it's generally not particularly challenging to determine if the government in question is "the good guy" in the conflict or not. And generally, as in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt, they clearly are not...

  6. The reason the Libyan intervention was necessary, and on balance a good choice, has nothing to do with Qaddafi qua Qaddafi and everything to stop the massive slaughter of civilians in cities like Misurata. Zombie is right that interventions on behalf of one political entity, be it government or rebel, for strictly political or economic are seldom, and certainly not necessarily the right choice. The term of art is HUMANITARIAN intervention, and the operational doctrine is to intervene when a powerful military force threatens to kill large numbers of civilians. This is where the obligation of powerful nations comes into play.

    The region has been awash in weapons, small arms, battlefield artillery, armed and armored vehicles for decades. The Arab spring upheavals have indeed added to the availability of weapons, more small arms than heavy weapons which tend to remain in the hands of the regimes, but to think that Libyan weapons would NOT be in the hands of the Malian rebels and jihadists if the West had NOT intervened in Libya is awfully naive.

    Also, too, this is FAR from the first time the Tuaregs have fought in Northern Mali (Azawad) for their own homeland - so the political center of gravity in Tripoli doesn't seem to have much bearing on these events historically...