Following from Above

PARIS – France’s military intervention in Mali is proceeding apace, with the recent fall of Timbuktu representing a significant milestone in the effort to rout the Islamist rebels who took control of the north of the country. More broadly, the intervention’s apparent success underscores three key points.

First, it confirms that France retains the ability to act as Europe’s prime mover. France has a large and rapidly deployable military force, as it demonstrated in Libya in 2011. Furthermore, this military capability is tied to a worldview, rather than just to the defense of economic interests.

In Mali, France is not seeking to lay claim to resources, export democracy, or extend a Françafrique in which it no longer believes. More prosaically, France seeks to stabilize a country that is subject to violent forces that are not always led by Malians, and that are likely to disrupt the whole sub-region while threatening Europe.

Second, the intervention once again highlights the strategic insignificance of the European Union, which is promoting a “comprehensive strategy” for Mali and the whole region in order to avoid the crucial question: Under what conditions will Europe use force?

The final point concerns the nature of American involvement in the conflict. The United States remains France’s most valuable strategic ally in this endeavor, but the terms have changed. Indeed, after a decade of fruitless (to say the least) military interventions, tightening budget constraints have led President Barack Obama’s administration to sacrifice some ground forces in order to keep intact its substantial air and naval capabilities, the purpose being, apparently, to contain China.

Obama’s recalibration has accentuated the realist turn in American foreign policy, according to which the US is now willing to intervene only when its immediate interests are at stake. In other cases, America’s allies will have to demonstrate their commitment in order to receive conditional backing.

This new approach was applied to Libya, where it was characterized as “leading from behind.” But this concept is inapt, because it implies that, ultimately, the US was the leader. Clearly, it was not. Absent the initial push from France and Great Britain, the US would most likely have remained passive, which was what the State and Defense Departments advised. (The State Department even went so far as to warn France and Great Britain not to vote for United Nations Resolution 1973, which authorized intervention.)

Obama ultimately overturned his bureaucrats’ position, proposing a strong military intervention, without ground troops, for a very limited period. In the end, the US delivered 75% of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), 75% of air-to-air refueling, and 90% of the targeting intelligence – an indisputably significant contribution. Yet Libya marked the beginning of a concept – applicable to Mali today – that might be termed “following from above.”

In other words, the US is conveying to its allies that it will no longer intervene in low-priority areas unless its allies commit first, just like an investor waiting for the promoter to make a down payment. As in Libya, France had to take the initiative in Mali. And, as in Libya, American support was crucial in the four areas where France and other European countries fall short: aerial reconnaissance, targeting, air transportation, and air-to-air refueling.

Unlike in Libya, though, in Mali the US took an unprecedented step in the history of transatlantic relations by considering making France pay to lease troop transport aircraft. Although this proposal ultimately was discarded, it reveals both the erosion of US support and America’s determination to signal its non-assistance to Europeans who are in harm’s way.

Moreover, there are real disagreements within the US bureaucracy when it comes to assessing the threat that Al Qaeda in Mali poses for US interests. Following from above thus has operational and symbolic significance. Operationally, it is limited to ISR and does not involve ground troops. Symbolically, it means backing initial and significant efforts undertaken by others.

For Europe, this situation is worrying on two counts. First, it illustrates the stop-and-go dynamic undergirding American politics, which can swing – within just five years – from a disturbing expansionism to an equally worrying withdrawal from the world. A jihadist Mali admittedly does not directly threaten the US, or at least less so than it does Europe. But does it make sense to stick to such a simple analysis after what occurred on September 11, 2001?

Second, Europe persists in ignoring the need to determine under what conditions it can and should use force, not for peacekeeping but to fight potentially hostile forces. The aversion to war is one of the most serious risks that Europe currently faces.

For the French, the US position will force a reevaluation of the importance of Africa in France’s global strategy, given that the government’s 2008 white paper on defense clearly minimized the continent’s importance, most likely to justify a reduction in French ground forces. Moreover, it will encourage France to broach the subject of military force with its European allies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is known to criticize France for being less than enthusiastic about European political union. The question is how to build Europe with states that bury their heads in the sand at the mention of the use of force, while cynically admitting that France is defending all of Europe in Mali.

France must now insist on addressing the question of the use of force as a pre-condition to any negotiations on Europe’s political integration. By showing Europe that it is following its actions from above, the US will once again force Europeans to awaken from their political torpor and strategic mediocrity. The question remains whether Europeans will be willing to do so.