The U.S. in Mali: Sniping from behind?

We have a problem in Mali: an al Qaeda franchise has taken over most of the country. President Obama only two days ago recommitted the United States to "combat[ing] the scourge of terrorism in the region." An American ally has been working tirelessly to bring the United Nations forward, provide a political solution, organize countries in the region to provide troops, and take the lead in operations. It would seem a perfect illustration of the Obama Doctrine: U.N. mandate, regional buy-in, leadership by an American ally, the United States one contributor among many.

And oh, by the way, the military coup that overthrew a democratic government in Mali, setting off the instability that enabled al Qaeda to prey on the country? That coup was the work of military officers and units trained by the United States. The fighters mowing across the country in conjunction with al Qaeda are veterans of the war in Libya, armed with weapons looted there. They are part of the widespread insecurity that Libya's transition has spawned and U.S. policy has done nothing to attenuate. So we bear some culpability for the terror engulfing Mali. And it is in our security interest -- and in the interest of the administration's vision for the new international order -- to stamp it out.

And yet our ambassador to the United Nations publicly described the French plan as "crap," and delayed U.N. action for weeks. When France commenced military operations to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from overrunning Mali's capital, the Obama administration demanded payment for any military support provided. Ten days into the operation. U.S. officials haven't even decided whether to make requested air-to-air refueling sorties available for French planes. "This is a deliberate effort to consult with the French to assess how best we can support them in the context of support provided by other countries," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

That's not leading, even from behind. That's undercutting your allies.

It's also incredibly damaging to the United States, even on the terms the Obama administration itself espouses. The White House wants our country to step back from unilateral actions, to have a share but not the lion's share of the work. That requires others to be both willing and able to step forward.

Our European allies have twice in the past couple of years shown themselves willing to lead military operations when we would not. In neither Libya nor Mali has the Obama administration denied that we have an interest in achieving the objectives for which our allies fought, and are fighting. So we agree it needs doing, we just don't want to do it.

Europe has several of the world's most capable militaries; not just Britain and France, but also Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and others have all acquitted themselves admirably. But even those militaries lack outright or run short of some of the things that Americans take for granted in our operations: persistent surveillance of battlefields, reliable communications, rapid identification and targeting, the ability to strike promptly, transportation to deploy troops and equipment, precision-guided munitions to minimize unintended casualties, air-to-air refueling to enable strikes from great distances and repeated passes at targets.

That Europeans don't have these "enablers" in sufficient supply is their own fault. They chose to spend their money differently, predictably reducing military prowess and increasing the risk of failure. They mostly ignored decades of American pleading and NATO initiatives to boost defense spending, from the percentage rules of the Carter administration to the current incarnation of "smart defense." And they often spoke of their cultural superiority in spending money on social programs rather than militarism, even while they depended on our militarism. There is in some quarters a smug satisfaction about  the Europeans finally realizing what we've been trying to tell them for so long.

But indulging that schadenfreude is unworthy of us. We want a world in which countries that share our values act to protect and promote those values; otherwise, the hard work all accrues to us. We want allies that see the right and take responsibility for acting to advance it.

Why not expect the Europeans to pay for what they need, especially when the United States borrows 30 cents of every dollar that our own government spends? The Obama administration isn't wrong to try and shift the burden-sharing toward Europeans. But there is a time for negotiating the terms of support to allies. That time is not when they are undertaking a military operation with goals that we support -- nor even when they are undertaking a military operation we don't think is a good idea.  

Denying support in extremis leaves scars -- as Americans well know (Turkey denying us search-and-rescue operations from their territory during the Iraq war, France denying us their airspace during the El Dorado Canyon attacks on Libya, Belgium threatening to close its ports to us in 2003). Our own experience as an ally often in need of support even when governments oppose our policies ought to make us more, not less, willing to help when it counts most.

The French defense establishment had the grace to be embarrassed by their government's choices in 2003. The Obama Pentagon has not expressed similar embarrassment, either with regard to Mali or generally. It is from the Pentagon that the demand for reimbursement emanated. Nor is the fault confined to political civilians. Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the United States did not want to be complicit in any Israeli strike on Iran. If I were in Tehran, I would interpret that to mean we would deny Israel assistance. Denying France assistance now will reinforce the perception -- both among allies and enemies -- that U.S. allies are on their own.

The Obama Doctrine depends critically on others stepping forward and undertaking the work we are stepping back from. There will be fewer allies willing to do that if we continue to be stingy with our help and generous with our criticism


Shadow Government

Obama's second chance to stand up for democracy

President Obama's second inaugural address contained an admirable homage to some of the greatest heroes of civil and political rights. We are treated to a vision of the United States that is rooted in the ideals those heroes struggled to achieve. And we celebrate their victory, even if we are not all in agreement about how much progress has been made or how much remains to be done. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, America achieved what has made it truly "the last best hope of the Earth" as Lincoln put it and Reagan reiterated. The stains of second-class citizenship and institutionalized prejudice have been removed. There is always more to do to help people take greater advantage of their birthright of freedom, but the birthright is enshrined in law in a country where law rules, not men -- in theory and most of the time in practice.

But such is not the case in many countries of the world, a world where the United States must exist and because of its size and influence, lead. Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won't do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to. So given this, we as citizens have a right and even a duty, I think, to ask if during the next four years the administration will base U.S. foreign policy on those same ideals. After all, if the character and reputation we have and want to keep is one of a beacon of democracy and a friend to it everywhere, then surely we are obligated to put actions to our words. The president made clear yesterday that as far as his domestic agenda is concerned, he will continue to insist on his understanding of what it means to be a country founded upon the ideals of freedom and equality, and that will mean a larger government and more spending on entitlements with the costs born by overburdened taxpayers and by debt. I don't agree with that approach, but that's not germane to this post. But what of his foreign policy agenda? Shouldn't he also in these matters take care to promote the ideals that he believes make us a great nation? Shouldn't we, can't we, do more than we have done in the last four years to stand by democrats in their struggles, wherever they may be found?

I have been saddened and even alarmed to look over the last four years of the Obama administration's policies and see that support for democracy in word and deed has often been pushed aside to make room for withdrawal and accommodation. For example, one of the greatest threats to liberty and equality the world over are the radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters and funders, but the president and his highest officials, while taking victory laps over bin Laden's takedown by Seal Team 6, campaigned as though this was a diminishing problem and that al Qaeda had been "decimated." The truth is that even as the campaign was winding down Benghazi exposed their assertions as flawed. We know that al Qaeda is not only still powerful but thriving in North Africa and beyond. We stand by as the French take the lead in saving Mali, literally, from an al Qaeda takeover. That's right, the French. But then France has never been slow to assert itself where national interests are at stake. We could take a lesson from them.

And there are other examples where the administration has not taken care to secure our interests, such as its refusal to treat Russia as a bad actor where democracy is concerned and a supporter of those who share its authoritarian bent. Or Venezuela, where a dictator has been allowed to ruin his country, try to ruin others in the region and coddle and comfort our worst enemies with little resistance from us.

Let me tie two concepts together that I have been discussing and make this assertion: support for democracy is in our national interest. I'm glad the president said so yesterday in his second inaugural address. I just wish he'd say it more often and do something more concrete about it in the next four years.

A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so? It is one of the reasons we are an exceptional nation.

Support for democracy and democrats means giving voice to our ideals and to take action to support those who share our ideals. We should never fail to talk about liberty and rights with all states who deny them to their citizens. Freedom House's latest report is a useful guide for knowing how to address these issues and with which countries. And we should take action, such as providing resources of various kinds to those men and women who ask for our help.  Some of them are so oppressed that they need succor just to go on living; some need support because they are in a position to actually change their country for the better. Think of it as supporting both "hope and change."

Notice I said nothing about imposing democracy or nation-building; these are canards used by those who opposed the Iraq war or who deny our leadership role by hiding behind "state sovereignty" claims. In my years as a government official we never once imposed democracy on any country; it can't be done. What we did, what the United Nations and Europe and the Japanese and the Indians and many others have done, is to provide aid to people in dictatorships or failing states who asked for our help. Sometimes they are the majority of a country; sometimes they are the minority. Pointing out the objections of a dictator who murders and abuses his people and who is very often a disturber of the peace of his region or the world provides no excuse to deny help to his victims when we can. What legitimacy does such a dictator have to object to his would-be slaves asking free peoples to help them be free?  By what right does he block the free world from trying to encourage the establishment of more free states, which is in their interest?

A world made up mostly of states where rights are respected and the law rules is surely in our interests as these states are less likely to be in serious conflict with states like them. It might take years or generations, but we should try, nonetheless.

And there are two more reasons to try. First, dictators vexed by dissidents at home are weakened. It is in our interests to make tyrants as miserable as we can; we have plenty of resources and agencies who can do this work. History has many lessons on this. It is a shame so many oppressors and enemies of freedom feel more secure today to work their wicked will at home and abroad than four years ago, especially all those whose behavior we can influence. Second, it makes no sense to hope for the day when a tyrant falls but to have done nothing to help the lovers of freedom be ready to take over. We learned a hard lesson in Egypt: Mubarak spent 30 years squelching the democratic opposition and thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that "it's me or the Brotherhood." We could have done more in Egypt.

I would like to take the president at his word yesterday when he made his single comment about supporting freedom around the world. I did not expect his second inaugural address to be like President George W. Bush's, but I'm glad at least that he mentioned it. And I will hope that he does more. There are many fine people both in the ranks of the political appointees and in the foreign and civil services who want to help democrats around the world, even if there are many who do not. He's the boss, he can have his way if he'll lead. He has an army ready to implement good programs that directly support -- dare I say it -- a freedom agenda.

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