France and State Failure in Mali

On January 11th, France began air strikes in Mali, in an effort to defeat an Islamist insurgency. Cynics can be forgiven for seeing this latest military intervention in Africa as just one more chapter in a long narrative of post-colonial meddling by France in its former colonies. There are indeed some key parallels between the current operation and previous French engagements in places like Chad, Togo, and Central African Republic. This intervention, though, is different in key ways. And, critically, the multi-lateral intervention in Mali could provide some pointers about longer-term efforts to deal with failed states.

During the Cold War, the United States and other Western states largely allowed France to intervene in Africa at will, even in areas outside its former colonial domain. Publicly, France usually justified its efforts as supporting anti-Communist ends. In practice, French commercial and geo-political interests often drove decisions to utilize troops in African countries. Remember, France has long maintained military bases in places like Dakar, N’Djamena, Libreville, and Djibouti, though that military footprint has shrunk in size in the post-Cold War era.

So, has France simply replaced Cold War aims with global counter-terrorism, in its justification of African interventions? There is some truth to this assertion, but France no longer has the interest or the resources to sustain unilateral adventures in Africa.

In the current operation in Mali, it is quite telling that France seems content to let neighboring West African states supply ground forces to support the beleaguered Malian government. The ECOWAS ground forces do not yet seem to be ready, but the regional organization does have a history marked with some successes in security affairs.

In addition, France’s air strikes are supported – at least in broad terms – by a December 2012 United Nations Security Council resolution. Russia, China, and the entire Security Council do not want to see gains by the Malian Islamists. So, even if not all states agree on the timing of France’s move, there would appear to be broad consensus in support of a coalition to defeat the Islamists.

In terms of the longer-term effort to address state failure, neither the French public nor others should believe that a few weeks of air strikes will be enough to deal with the root causes of ineffective governance in critically weak states. Indeed, Mali’s current turmoil is partly the result of imported fighters and weapons from Algeria and Libya. The international community will need to do a much better job of addressing “regional conflict formations,” an issue that I address in my recently released book.

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A Clash of Civilizations?

Almost 10 years ago, Samuel Huntington published one of the most influential articles of the post-Cold War era. “The clash of civilizations” thesis asserted that broad-based cultural differences – especially between the Islamic world and the West – would define geopolitical competition after the demise of the Soviet Union. The events of last week predictability bring reconsiderations of Huntington’s grand thesis.

While the Osama bin Ladins of the world have sought to generate a clash of civilizations, most have not supported this idea. In many respects, the most difficult conflicts since 1991 have been within states and not between them. Even in the realm of international relations, states have hardly acted in concert as civilizational blocs. Here Exhibit A is the sharp, sustained discord over the 2003 decision to invade Iraq; NATO members were deeply divided in the UN Security Council and beyond. Within the “Islamic civilization,” too, significant divides exist along regional and sectarian lines.

Even so, the “film” Muslim Innocence has sparked intense, sometimes violent protests across most of the Islamic world. Key countries – Sunni majority and Shiite majority – have witnessed protests. These include: Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The geographic scope, and the rapid spread of these protests is indicative of a strong sense of pan-Islamic identity that many Muslims share. Samuel Huntington was not completely shooting from the hip on the idea of an “Islamic civilization.”

That is not to say that the former Harvard professor’s grand thesis has sprung back to life. No, what is arguably most important is the reality of illiberal democracy in many of these majority Muslim countries. Indeed, it is possible to have some level of political competition and accountability without broad-based civil liberties. In recent days, the restrictive views on freedom of speech and religion have been on full display. Though it is uncomfortable, liberal democracies defend the right of fringe groups to make outrageous statements. It is not at all clear that the Arab spring revolutions (or other democratic transitions in the Islamic world) are headed towards liberal democracy. Even if this true, this does not amount to a geopolitical clash of civilizations.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

Libya’s Long Road

On September 11, 2012 the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by several dozen assailants armed with sophisticated weapons. The attack killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and several other diplomatic staff. On the surface the attack seems to be related to the release of an obscure online film, produced in the U.S. by clumsy critics of Islam. Related protests have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. While the Libya attack may or may not be the start of a new season of heightened tensions between the United States and the Arab world, the attack does put a spotlight on state weakness in Libya.

Secretary of State Clinton acknowledged the confusion that many feel about the attack:

Today, many Americans are asking – indeed, I asked myself – how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.

But we must be clear-eyed, even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or Government of Libya. Everywhere [Ambassador Chris Stevens] and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners. And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety. And last night, when I spoke with the President of Libya, he strongly condemned the violence and pledged every effort to protect our people and pursue those responsible.

In short, how could a grateful Libya allow this attack to occur?

For those who follow Libya closely, such as Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the attack was shocking but not surprising. For more than a generation (1969-2011), Libya was governed through the highly personalistic rule of the Muammar Gaddafi. The eccentric and ruthless dictator established little in the way of institutions that would survive him; he ruled largely through caprice and ever-changing fiats. As Libyans struggle to establish democracy, they face a long, tough slog to establish formal institutions of governance guided by the rule of law and rational administration. It is hardly surprising that Libya is somewhat chaotic 11 months after Gaddafi’s death. Not least, tens of thousands of armed fighters are still operating in irregular militias throughout Libya. Other transitioning democracies – including those with a more helpful past – also face long roads to establish social and political order rooted in law and freedom. The United States and other democracies must be patient with the Libyans, even as we seek to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice. Lasting democracy cannot be established in one or two years. Anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.