Despite an initial strong expression of support, the United States was too slow in meeting recent requests from France for assistance in its intervention in Mali. But that French action, supported by the African Union and the United Nations, has clearly been in America’s interest.
In a fast-moving situation, it took more than two weeks for Washington to agree to support the French air force with aerial refueling and transportation for African peacekeepers.
A State Department spokeswoman attributed the delay to questions raised by administration lawyers. That dodge, however, didn’t alter the troubling message President Barack Obama has been sending to our allies.
Once again the Obama administration appears to be “leading from behind,” a phrase that could also be translated as “It’s your turn.”
That can’t be reassuring to allies who have to wrestle with the consequences of earlier U.S. inaction in Libya and misguided action in Mali. It not only raises questions about our commitments to NATO, it threatens the international cooperation that is central to the war on terror.
At least the pace of the U.S. response against the al-Qaida stronghold in northern Mali finally picked up last week.
In addition to the transportation and refueling assistance, the U.S. is now reportedly moving forward on an unmanned base for American drones in Mali’s neighbor Niger — another item on France’s request for help.
And despite France’s lead role in Mali, it would be naive to imagine that America could avoid the heavy-lifting responsibilities in the long-term fight against terrorism.
French troops, along with forces from Chad, have moved into Kidal to secure that strategic city in north Mali.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that his nation’s military commitment in Mali will begin to recede next month.
Unfortunately, though the dangerous situation in Mali has been brewing for at least a year, it seems to have caught the White House by surprise — just as the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya did last Sept. 11.
President Obama’s inflexible ban on allies sending ground troops into Libya during the 2011 civil war meant there was no one left to guard the armories of the Libyan government when it fell. Those arms supplied the Tuareg and Islamist forces that seized northern Mali later that year, inflicting defeat on the U.S.-trained army of Mali.
In reaction, a U.S.-trained officer seized control of the government last spring, causing Washington to suspend aid. Meanwhile, U.S-trained forces joined the northern rebels, taking their U.S-supplied weapons with them.
If al-Qaida succeeds in establishing a safe haven in northern Africa, there will be a rising risk of attacks on Europe and the U.S.
But President Obama still appears inclined to underestimate continuing terror threats, due to his overriding focus on domestic initiatives. He has all but declared victory over al-Qaida.
It would be tragic if he is wrong.
And Mali suggests that he is.