C'est Mali: Intervention in a G-Zero world

C'est Mali: Intervention in a G-Zero world

Ian Bremmer
I have just come back from a trip to France last week, where French officials told me that come 2014, they expect there will still be a significant number of French forces in the north of Mali.

That, however, does not make Mali “Afrighanistan,” no matter what The Economist might say. Unlike the American invasion of Afghanistan, the French military operation is a small intervention ‑ France says it has 4,000 troops in Mali ‑ by a country that has no appetite to do any more. There will be no state-building by the French; there will be no great mission to democratize its people and its values (partly because democracy already has a hold in Mali). There are few densely packed urban areas for rebels to stage hard-to-detect insurgent attacks.

In recent days, French officials have been trying to make this as clear as possible. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pledged, “France has no intention of remaining in Mali,” explaining it’s up to “the Africans and the Malians themselves to guarantee security.” The number of troops in Mali should begin to fall in March, he added.

So, if the French coming to Mali’s aid isn’t Afghanistan Redux, what is it? Proof that in a G-Zero world, when there is no all-powerful world policeman, military intervention is going to be vastly different, and much rarer. And it will often fall to the major power of last resort with the most at stake.

Note who authorized the military aid: Francois Hollande, a leader who was considered squishy pudding until a few weeks ago. But then there he was, suddenly leading the French into battle, and then just a couple of days later he said, “We are winning in Mali.” Last week he went to Timbuktu — which I’m told is pretty far away — and received a hero’s welcome. Thus far the French have reported only one fatality.

This whole affair is a new chapter in the France-Mali postcolonial relationship. France was Mali’s only hope. The U.S. was hesitant to get involved in a land war after having one too many of its own. The Chinese continue to focus their military efforts closer to home. And Mali’s African compatriots didn’t have the resources to come to its aid. Instead, Mali turned to its former colonizer. In a twist of history, postcolonialism now includes a hero’s welcome for the former ruling power that had previously been kicked to the curb.

But the good news isn’t guaranteed. What’s still unclear about France’s involvement in Mali is whether — or, perhaps, when — there will be repercussions. The attack on the Algerian oil facility was not, despite the timing, in retaliation for France’s involvement in Mali. (Much like the attack against the U.S. embassy in Libya, it was a coincidence of confluence: Mokhtar Belmokhtar began preparations for the attack well before France entered Mali.) These repercussions could come in a number of forms and geographies — including on French soil. One thing is certain: The steeper the consequences, the less willing other countries will be to step in when the call for help goes out.

And so Mali, which seems like a promising story, could still turn into something quite different. And that would just add to the bad news in the fight against extremists, which continues to expand. The war on terror — or whatever you’d like to call it — stretches across ever-widening territory. On top of South Asia, extremism is growing as the Arab Summer boils on across the Middle East and North Africa.

As has been the case for years, the conundrum is what to do about all this. Even if countries intervene, there’s still the issue of how to exit without the need for a return trip. That’s the problem France will encounter quite soon: How does it ensure that the rebels it’s driving out of Timbuktu aren’t just hiding in the bush, waiting to retake northern Mali once they pull out?

Aside from its active war in Afghanistan (which it is scaling back), America has largely outsourced its terror fight to an army of drones. In a G-Zero world, it may be fitting that the only real superpower is the one that never touches foot on the ground.