STANFORD, CALIFORNIA - The desert sands of Mali and Algeria provide an unlikely arena for an existential challenge to the global alliance system the United States has managed since World War II. But the hesitant and timid U.S. and European Union responses to the crisis in northwestern Africa drip like acid on the rock of alliance cohesion.
The Obama administration’s self-described preference to lead from behind in messy conflicts in the Islamic world has much value for war-weary, financially strapped Americans. But great care must be taken with that approach to avoid driving U.S. leadership into a strategic dead end.
After days of very public hesitations by Washington and Brussels to provide even nonlethal help — such as in-air refueling — to France’s reluctant intervention in Mali, the U.S. and the 27-nation European Union committed just four transport aircraft to the effort. That will intensify doubts abroad about the administration’s intentions and effectiveness in getting others to step forward again.
Those doubts, and the turmoil in Mali, are an aftermath of the international intervention in Libya in 2011. Washington sharply curtailed resources and involvement there after helping overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
Instead of mission creep, the Obama administration pursued mission shrink in a country it had just helped liberate, and inadequate security contributed to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last fall.
Now, Tuareg mercenaries who fled Libya with extensive arms after the downfall of their patron threaten to take full control of Mali. The Islamist rebels’ thrust south triggered French President Francois Hollande’s dispatch of warplanes and the Foreign Legion to his country’s former colony — and his appeals for help from allies.
Hollande expected to spend last week swaddled in the glory of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Elyse Treaty of cooperation between France and Germany. Charles de Gaulle conceived that document as the foundation for France’s exit from its colonial past into a European future built on French-German partnership.
Instead, Hollande grimly dealt like the Lone Ranger with a desperate post-colonial expedition totally at odds with Germany’s hypercaution on foreign military involvement. Growing divergences between Paris and Berlin in economic policies and performance also undercut the joint vision and commitment needed to maintain European unity.
The Obama administration appears to give insufficient weight to the complex interaction of the many moving parts in international relations as it rolls out one tactical response after another on Syria, Iran, and China and now to justified requests for quick help from a European ally willing to lead from the front.
This strategic insouciance lies at the heart of a gathering crisis of alliance management. For what it is worth, I approve of many of the individual decisions and policies of President Barack Obama. Getting others to take on more burden and expense of leadership is far from dumb. Moving with great caution on Syria — ditto.
But I am increasingly worried by the lack of a strategic relationship between the individual tactical decisions, which often seem based largely on Obama’s needs, ambitions and/or prejudices (see “pivot to Asia”).
Worse: The problem may be even larger and more insidious. Interlocking modern revolutions in instantaneous global communications, social media, trade and means of warfare have created a world that increasingly grants neither the time nor the space leaders need to develop and implement coherent strategic options.
That concern was repeatedly voiced in two recent days of private discussions held at the Hoover Institution among some of the leaders who crafted the most durable foreign and national security U.S. policies of the past half-century.
“The world is awash in change,” former secretary of state George Shultz said as he opened those discussions. By the end, it seemed to me that the world may have already been submerged by those changes.
The taking of U.S. and other hostages by Islamic extremists in Algeria in the wake of France’s intervention in Mali underscores how complex and tangled our “foreign” problems have become.
The best chances of countering the atomization of foreign policy begin with a U.S. leadership that enunciates and pursues a clear national purpose uniting American actions abroad. Pursuing liberation in Libya and then standing aside or waffling when NATO allies such as France and Turkey are the targets of hostile actions disrupts badly needed alliance cohesion.
A West African diplomat with whom I discussed U.S., British and French involvement in Libya nearly a year ago put it more succinctly: “We saw what you could do militarily in Libya. But we are not impressed by the after-sales service.”
Jim Hoagland, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an associate editor, senior foreign correspondent, and columnist for The Washington Post.