Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered some tough words on Mali during her Benghazi hearing yesterday. Describing the conflict as a “necessary struggle,” she continued:
We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven. People say to me all the time: AQIM hasn’t attacked the United States. Well, before 9/11 we hadn’t been attacked on our homeland, since the War of 1812 and Pearl Harbor. So you can’t say, well, because they haven’t done something, they’re not going to do it. This is not only a terrorist syndicate; it is a criminal enterprise. So make no mistake about it. We’ve got to have a better strategy.
The Obama administration has thus far only provided transport and intelligence help to French-led forces on the ground. It’s unclear whether Clinton’s statement signals a shift in policy, but this ambiguous phrasing is consistent with the response of other Western leaders, who have called for a more active Western role in Mali yet declined to endorse a stronger intervention.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, called the rise of Islamist extremists an “existential threat,” yet made it abundantly clear that UK involvement would not extend beyond the small number of troops he has already deployed to advise the French. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who sent a cargo plane to help with transport, said he would like to see a “broad consensus” from the country before doing anything else.
The strange mix of strong rhetoric and weak action is easy to parse: Western leaders simply don’t know what to do about North Africa. And it’s easy to see why. From Somalia to Niger, a group of weak, shambolic governments have created a large zone of anarchy, paving the way for jihadis to wreak havoc. The threat from this region is real and dangerous, but in order to create any kind of long-term stability the Western world will have to become involved in nation-building across the Sahel, not just in Mali. For both political and practical reasons, this will be a bandwagon few leaders will be quick to jump on.