oogle Maps said the trip would last 18 hours, so I planned to break the journey into two parts: an eight-hour ride of about 250 miles from Dakar, Senegal, to Tambacounda, a town of about 80,000 in Senegal’s eastern scrub desert, and then another ten hours to Bamako, Mali. For some foreign travelers in West Africa, an overland journey is a rite of passage, an item to cross off on the Africa bucket list to demonstrate their hardy constitution.
You might think my U.S. Marine background suggests a thing for such demonstrations. Think again. I wasn’t hitting the road because I had anything to prove; I’ve experienced enough miserable travel over the years to appreciate the tender mercies of a smooth trip. It was not to be, however. In many countries the bus system is the most reliable form of transportation. In Mexico, for example, middle-class families and business travelers alike come and go from bus stations, just as Americans do through airports. If only West Africa had Mexico’s efficiency.
I can’t claim I wasn’t warned. Aid workers and researchers in Dakar, the unofficial capital of Francophone West Africa, questioned my overland travel rationale. “You’ll be sorry you didn’t fly”, said a staffer at a democracy-promoting NGO. “Better you than me”, shrugged a World Bank researcher who had backpacked across the continent a decade ago. Only Gary Engelberg, a former Peace Corps volunteer who has been in Africa since 1965 and recently retired as president of Africa’s Baobab Center, was pleased that I chose what Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho once called “slow travel.” “You’ll certainly learn things you wouldn’t otherwise know”, Engelberg predicted.
What I wanted to know was simple enough: Did people in western Mali feel safe, or were they also threatened by the Salafi Islamists who had destroyed normal life in northeast Mali? Had they remained moderate Sufis like their Senegalese neighbors, who united tribal custom with Sufi marabout authority? Was anything happening in the west, and if so did it matter to the current conflict? The few researchers and journalists I met with had not traveled through this region since the war in the northeast had started, so a bus trip seemed the easiest way to get answers.
But getting on a bus in West Africa is not so easy a task. In Dakar, a well-developed international city of 2.5 million with Nairobi’s street hustle and San Diego’s coastal weather, a bus station does not officially exist. Bus routes running to and from the countryside operate outside a parking lot called les pompiers, a reference to the fire station that once occupied the space.
Hundreds of rusty Renault sept-place, or seven-seat, sedans sat next to car rapides—vans with small gray seats that folded up to allow access to the back benches. The buses that did exist were parked along back streets and could only be boarded when a passenger purchased a seat from the right ticket agent. The ticket sellers scrummed at the les pompiers entrance alongside dozens of vendors selling crackers, water, bananas, cell phone charge cards, marabout Friday sermon recordings, sandwiches, mangoes, sunglasses, watches, chocolate bars and cartoon Qurans for children (absent, of course, any depictions of the Prophet).
I found a Tambacounda-bound car rapide and settled into the back bench. The rusted white Mercedes steel hull wasn’t as colorful as that of some of its peers, but, like most other West Africa mass-transport vehicles, the hood was plastered with “ALHAMDOULILAH”—thanks be to God. When tattooed on vehicles, the phrase seemed to say two things: that we will only reach our final destination safely through divine intervention and if we don’t it’s not the driver’s fault; and that uncertainty was a normative as well as an objective condition of West African ground transportation. As it happened, the prognostications of my advisers and the car rapide’s motto all proved accurate.
est Africa is not a natural travel destination for American foreign policy analysts. Those who do come to the region usually start their studies in Nigeria or Ghana, former British colonies that retain English as a common national language. Nor is West Africa an American tourist locale, except for ambitious travelers on a mission to visit as many countries as they can, a project that has lately become a fad among tech-savvy millennials.
With such purposes in mind, it is no wonder that most Americans tend to carry with them unexamined assumptions about West African social and political life, which they project naturally onto any regional problems that emerge into the 24-hour news cycle. NGO aid workers, hopscotching tourists and the occasional nomad journalist can breeze through a country’s capital and depart with the illusion that its national boundaries are important to its denizens. Residents of Dakar, Banjul, Bamako and Niamey can, and sometimes do, identify themselves as Senegalese, Gambian, Malian and Nigerien when interacting with outsiders. But within these countries, both in and out of urban areas, those identities are meaningless. They are Wolof or Jola, Mandinka or Aku, Bambara or Tuareg, Fulani or Hausa. They are not who the map tells Americans they are supposed to be.
As is well known, after World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved the Middle East into mostly haphazard nations or proto-nations—Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine—where tribal culture, sectarian identification and formal national parameters were and often remain at odds. Somewhat less well known is that a similar thing happened to Africa in 1884–85, when the Berlin Conference turned the continent into a colonial patchwork quilt. At Portugal’s request, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck gathered the major European powers controlling colonial Africa. For three months, officials haggled over boundary lines and regional authority. By the conference’s end, seven European powers—Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain—had divided Africa’s stew of cultures, languages and ethnicities into territories united, willingly or otherwise, under various European banners. Those three months in Berlin laid the foundation for European domination of nearly an entire continent, and created many of the borders for the states that exist today as independent and would-be sovereign nations.
Consequently, if you are a sub-Saharan West African and want to acquire a citizen’s national pride (as an American or European may suggest you should), doing so requires accepting certain aspects of British, French or Portuguese heritage as your own. Notwithstanding Liberia, which was founded by freed U.S. slaves under somewhat suspicious circumstances, the machinations of colonial powers are the only reason your country exists in its current configuration. They constitute the primary reason you speak to and relate with the rest of the world in French (most of West Africa), English (Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia) or Portuguese (Guinea-Bissau). And of course much the same applies to east, central and southern Africa as well.
This is a formula for political schizophrenia. Given colonialism’s impact on African national identity, identifying as a national citizen (such as Malian) over a tribal past (such as Tuareg) effectively requires embracing an aspect of European history as more relevant than a bloodline. This doesn’t happen easily or often. The Senegalese, Gambian, Malian or Nigerien citizen has a national ID card and accepts that identity as necessary to maintain or advance one’s station. But real identities are framed through myriad combinations of inherited tribal, clan, religious and linguistic constructs.
he roads are just as fractious. We started off with 14 passengers when the car rapide plunged into Dakar’s congested Wednesday afternoon traffic. The driver was assisted by a luggage handler and a co-pilot of sorts who banged rhythmically on the front passenger door, calling out “Tamba, Tamba, Tamba!” to people along the road like a Little League fan chattering for a batter to swing. The passengers sat three to a bench, except in the back, where I sat beside a thin boy in his late teens wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, staring out the right rear window. Flinty, brittle men wore traditional one-piece garments; boys wore western shirts and trousers. A man sat with two chatty female relatives; one wore the hijab, the other did not. A toddler wore her hair in tight beaded knots decorated with bright plastic green, pink, orange and yellow beads. Her mother, who also remained uncovered, chewed a stubby baobab toothpick, smiling at me while she munched. Her daughter squirmed, flinching at my presence. I sensed neither had ever sat near a white man in a car rapide.
Two hours later, Dakar’s coastal breezes were gone. The traffic thinned, the air stagnated and the temperature climbed as we pushed inland. Pedestrians, peddlers and potential passengers lined the road as we approached Mbour. Our co-pilot continued selling seats as we drove through the town, and the benches swelled to four each, then two benches stacked to five as we left the city. The hungry toddler, wedged between an exposed, nursing breast and the shoulder of a man with a gray goatee and white prayer cap, alternately whined and suckled. Our car rapide groaned under the weight of twenty people and their luggage. Even so, as we drove away from Mbour and the sunset, the co-pilot continued his chattering sales pitch.
Watching the events unfold on the road to Mali reminded me of the conversation I had before the journey with the aforementioned World Bank researcher. She had spent almost a decade in various parts of Africa, and knew more NGO phrases and economist buzzwords than I’d ever heard, let alone learned. She had more degrees than I did, and the Ivy League institutions that awarded her those degrees had taught her to trust in conventional policy prescriptions: data, dollars, dialogue. She debated indignantly when I argued that we might have been naive for supporting the French intervention in Mali. “There was a clear international consensus”, she protested; “They were flying French flags in Bamako”—as if any of that translates into a license for wisdom.
Most confusing of all, at least to my decidedly un-academic worldview, was her circular defense of West African state corruption. Since people would always act in their own economic self-interest, she explained, political leaders and other officials who lacked sufficient education, let alone any sense of loyalty to the national whole, were more likely to choose a corrupt path because of the benefits patronage offered to tribes, clans and families. Consequently, the World Bank and IMF are obligated to bail them out when their humpty-dumpty edifices come crashing down. Without Western aid, she suggested, countries collapse, anarchy reigns and natives starve. Since Western powers created the lack of fit between nations and states, they must also finance the consequences. I thought creating disincentives for corruption—even if they were more destabilizing in the short term—was a more promising policy direction. I also thought continuing to intervene in Mali might be a mistake, and do more harm than good in the long term. She looked at me strangely.
I contemplated her fatalistic argument as the potholes worsened. The tires on our car rapide weren’t built to handle the added weight, any more than West African states were built to handle the burden of their demographic heterogeneity. The driver, luggage handler and co-pilot wanted to sell as many tickets as possible. The more tickets they sold, the greater the risk to the vehicle, but this risk didn’t matter (alhamdoulilah) because money now was better than planning against the prospect of future misfortune. If West Africa could ever escape its misfit between states and nations, it would take either systemic catastrophe or, more cheerfully, forward-looking planning and a great deal of effort and support. That’s not going to happen. Maybe NGO fatalism isn’t so misanthropic after all.
Our left rear tire, which I was seated above, was the first to explode. The car rapide shook for three or four seconds. The tire rim scraped as the driver eased its hissing shell onto the Sahel scrub. The spare wasn’t in such great shape, so the driver, who was dual-hatted as the crew foreman, dispatched his luggage handler and co-pilot to chase down a tire in the closest village. They returned 15 minutes later with tire in hand, rigged it up, and we were good to go.
But the potholes proliferated as we journeyed eastward, rattling us as the weight pressed down on the suspension system like water on a sinking ship. It was dark when a second pothole and rock took out the left front tire and bent the front axle. We unloaded the bus and sat down, gazing into a cloudless, star-studded African night sky while our crew lifted the car rapide’s front end onto rocks, crawled under the vehicle, and hammered the axle straight with stones and a crowbar.
It was almost midnight when we were loaded back up and on our way. The tire was still flat but the axle was straight enough to bear the passenger weight. We drove five kilometers on the rim, scraping the asphalt until we pulled up in front of a small village. The luggage handler and co-pilot had gone ahead to scrounge up another tire. We unloaded again and the driver and his dynamic duo started pushing the car rapide backward so they could lift it onto flat stones. Unfortunately, a heavy rock with a triangle point sat in wait underneath the right rear tire. The black rubber hissed indignantly when it punctured, like a parent scolding a petulant child. We sat and waited again.
During the post-World War II decades of African independence, the thrill of freedom and nationalist fervor that swept across the continent quickly begat an awareness that local powers were ill-equipped to handle the functional and administrative responsibilities of a modern state. But in a sense that was the least of the problems. For West Africans, the struggle to retain their tribal identities in the face of colonialism carried on after independence, but suddenly their colonial identity became a national one. And the speed with which these new national identities leapt into existence took most West Africans by surprise because the hasty pace did not originate in Dakar, but rather in Paris.
In 1960, on the fertile African coast south of France across the Mediterranean Sea, the Fifth Republic was mired in its sixth year of colonial war in Algeria. Two years before, French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle had come into power amid a French civil-military crisis that ended the Fourth Republic. For the French, Algerian self-determination had not previously been negotiable; they saw Algeria as part of greater France. Some 85 percent of French soldiers in Algeria were conscripts, and the war had tied down half of the French army. De Gaulle had been called out of retirement and needed a path forward in Africa, not just for French pride, but for his own legacy (during World War II, De Gaulle had operated the Free French government out of Algiers). Divesting France of its sub-Saharan African territories so that the French could focus on retaining their Algerian crown jewel seemed reasonable and timely. Compared to Algeria, west and central African independence was an easy political concession de Gaulle could make to French anti-colonialist advocates.
But West Africans in the French colonies seemed less than fervent about independence. Unlike Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, who chased the British from the Gold Coast with fiery pan-African rhetoric, leaders from the French colonial AOF and AEF regions sought political autonomy within an Afrique Française structure. In 1958, soon after De Gaulle’s return to power, Senegal’s territorial government voted to join a French Community rather than proclaim independence outright. Léopold Sédar Senghor was among the African leaders who advocated alliances encouraging the French to remain active as administrators, and saw anti-communist and pro-capitalist policies as most beneficial for Africa’s future. Opposing him was Modibo Keïta, a union leader and socialist from French Sudan, which today is Mali.
Senghor won the 1958 referendum, but his views did not hold sway for long. By 1960, Keïta’s arguments carried the court of public opinion. On April 4, 1960, the Mali Federation, comprising Senegal and the former French Sudan, voted for independence. Three months later, on July 20, Keita was elected President for what proved a brief and tumultuous tenure. After scarcely a month in office, Senghor’s advocates rejected Keita’s leadership and political philosophy. On August 22, 1960, Senegalese authorities arrested the Malian leader in Dakar and shipped him back to Bamako in a sealed railroad car. The next day, a jubilant Senghor and a furious Keita announced Senegal and Mali’s separation.
So it was that this part of West Africa became independent. The story differs in details but not in essence for Togo, Benin (Dahomey), Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire), Guinea, Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), Niger, Gabon, Cameroon, Congo (in its many names), Mauritania, Central African Republic and Chad. In 1960, over the span of four months, almost 10 percent of the United Nations was born from the two large sub-Saharan Afrique Française colonial regions of west (occidentale) and central (équatoriale). Although the feud between Senegal and Mali didn’t last long, Senghor lost his dream of shaping West Africa into two large French nations.
Nevertheless, unlike the other European powers then, and Portugal some years later, the French retained close ties with their former colonies. During the first ten years of Senegal’s existence, for example, the number of French citizens residing in the country grew from 10,000 to 50,000. France freed most of West Africa’s countries for independence, but independence only made the national architecture of West Africa even more culturally aligned toward the French.
Today, France’s former colonial regions, still locally known by their French Community acronyms AOF and AEF, have been partitioned into 14 nations. Twice as many Africans (122 million) as Europeans (63 million) speak French as a primary language. The largest French-speaking country by population in the world, at 68 million, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a former Belgian colony that favored French over Flemish during colonization. The CFA franc currency, which, before the euro, was pegged to the French franc, unifies West Africa’s economic relationships through fixed exchange rates. More than 240,000 French citizens live permanently in the AOF and AEF, and the regions account for 5 percent of French exports.
Perhaps more remarkable, West Africa’s artificial, European-created boundaries have changed little since the Berlin Conference. Independence in 1960 may have created states, but it did not produce many citizens who could naturally identify with the state over family, clan or tribal interest. Not unlike our experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan, Americans would like to attribute events and decisions in West Africa to the workings of state structures, though they are more likely a product of variables Americans struggle to understand and usually lack the capacity to influence.
e were now less than forty kilometers from Tambacounda. It had taken an hour to procure two new tires, but now the roads were free from traffic and mostly free from potholes. The driver had made good time, in part because our passenger load had dwindled back to 14. Apparently not everyone was going the full distance to Tamba; six had offloaded in hamlets near the tire-changing village. The car rapide was finally living up to its name when suddenly the road caved, the front left tire dropped, and an asphalt crevasse administered a shuddering coup de grâce. The tire exploded; the front axle crumpled. We skidded to the shoulder and stopped. The doors opened and we climbed out, well accustomed to the drill.
Our driver, co-pilot and luggage handler huddled, appraising the twisted metal carcass. After conferring, gesturing and nodding, our driver procured a flashlight from the front seat while the co-pilot stood at the road. Ten minutes later, a car approached and our driver flagged him down with the flashlight. Our driver and co-pilot got in and drove off, and our luggage handler unhooked the cargo rack. We were scuttling the ship. Alhamdoulilah.
Dawn broke as we waited outside the rusty hull. Three passengers, all men under age twenty, began morning prayers. The older men and women remained respectfully silent, apparently lacking adequate commitment, interest or fervor to bow face-first on the cool morning asphalt. The driver returned as a passenger in a new car rapide, having rented its driver and services for the remaining forty kilometers into Tambacounda.
We reloaded onto our new ride and shuttled off, leaving our driver and his crew to ponder whether the extra passenger load had really been in his economic interest. By the time we arrived in Tambacounda, we had endured four flat tires, three gasoline stops, one car rapide change and two broken axles. The toddler smiled at me when I helped her mother unload her luggage. She had finally gotten used to a white man. I smiled, waved and glanced at my watch. I was only 16 hours behind schedule.
t’s easy to forget that most of the countries represented as sovereign entities on today’s world map are recent political inventions. In 1946, a year after World War II ended, the United Nations had 55 members. In 1960, 15 years after its creation, the United Nations had 99 member states. Today, the world organizes itself into 193 member states and, depending on region, culture and ethnicity, a pastiche of de facto nation-like entities. From Togo to Tuvalu, the number of recognized world countries quadrupled in two generations.
Americans want solutions to foreign policy dilemmas. As can-do pragmatists, we often flunk tests of both patience and stoicism in the face of historically anchored difficulty. Few places provide more opportunities for creative problem solving than West Africa, but sometimes the desire to fix a problem can be part of the dysfunction. American policy analysts are trained to understand culture and statecraft together, even if American political leaders are inclined to ignore them when it matters most. We ask these analysts to write policies we can use to build states. We assume that state-building (often mislabeled nation-building, because few Americans can define and distinguish between “country”, “state” and “nation”), and more efficient state structures are always in the American interest. We don’t like ungoverned “gray zones” where terrorists, smugglers and criminals can plot. So when a country and UN member in good standing like Mali disintegrates, we assume that it needs to be put back together. In West Africa, however, chronically dysfunctional state structures may be worse from a U.S. national security perspective than reasonably well-governed tribal areas.
The United States faces a regional security conundrum in West Africa. Policymakers are justifiably concerned about the rise of radical Islamists, like those who fueled the 2012 Tuareg uprising in northern Mali. West Africa’s moderate Sufi traditions date back to the 11th century, when Islam, after being confined for a few centuries to the northern Maghreb, integrated into traditional African social structures. Washington rightly wants to prevent Salafists—who carried different banners like AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJAO into battle, but whose brutality and oppression were all the same—from establishing Taliban-like rule in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
At the same time, converting political theory into programmatic action requires direct collaboration with states. But that can be difficult for a host of practical reasons, and also a few artificial ones, including Congress barring the U.S. government from contributing aid to regimes established through explicitly undemocratic actions, such as military coups. In West Africa, where a coup could be instigated by political rivalry or popular uprising, this often leads to both circuitous and discontinuous policy. For example, the United States can now fund security assistance programs in Niger, where a 2010 coup eventually resulted in both a democratically elected government and a comfortable retirement for the coup leader, Lieutenant General Salou Djibo. But it cannot fund programs in Mali, where Captain Amadou Sanogo’s 2012 coup remains politically unresolved. In other words, we couldn’t in Niger but now we can; and we could in Mali but now we can’t. But of course the security situation in these two countries is linked, so a policy flow made to hiccup like this is—how to put it?—unhelpful.
The real problem with U.S. policy in West Africa is not feel-good but counterproductive congressional interference but a failure to properly assess the nuances of state functioning in a region that isn’t well suited to it. “West Africa is not ungoverned space”, as Andrew Lebovich, a regional expert at the New America Foundation told me, “but it is unconventionally governed space.” Mali’s National Army has been widely condemned by American and European authorities for failing to halt the Salafis from exploiting the Tuareg north. But Mali’s army is predominately Bambara, a tribe with about as much incentive to fight against Tuareg northern independence as the Shi‘a Iraqi Army does against the Kurdish peshmerga. Mali’s soldiers do not need more training to fight off northern Salafi threats; they need a reason to fight. Preserving Mali as a state may not be a strong enough motivation.
Instead of examining the Malian problem, and several prospective others, through the lens of Westphalian structures and Bismarckian statecraft, it may be more useful for Americans to remember how personal, religious and clan rivalries previously governed European security issues. In the 15th and 16th centuries, feuds between Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), Giuliano della Rovere (Pope Julius II), and the Orsini, Colonna and Medici families (among others) provided both motivation and resources for armies to coalesce, defend and fight over territory and treasure. This paradigm offers a more accurate illustration of how West African governance works, although comparing today’s coup leaders to the 15th-century Papal States may be unfairly demeaning to West Africans.
States, too, evince cultural pride as well as define economic interests. Consider France in this light. Until January 2013, the French had little interest in direct involvement against the Tuareg rebellion. For the better part of a century, the Tuareg had fought French colonialism, and, as in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province with the British, colonial armies had never truly subjugated them. The French had never planted colonial roots in Timbuktu, and so did not feel compelled to fight Tuareg Salafis just to hear Malian music play again. French mining companies extract 40–50 metric tons of gold per year in Mali, making it the continent’s third-largest gold producer after South Africa and Ghana. But the mining interests are in Mali’s southern mountains, unaffected by the Tuareg uprising—at least before Salafi leaders began threatening Bamako.
When they did threaten to come south, the French reacted as the British might have if the Pashtun Army were preparing to attack Karachi or Lahore. This was not surprising to anyone familiar with goings on in West and Central Africa. Between 1960 and 2005 the French launched 46 military operations in their 14 former AOF and AEF colonies. Of the 19,000 French troops deployed beyond their homeland, at least 10,000 are in Africa. France maintains permanent military bases in Gabon and Djibouti and a permanent training center in Dakar. Thus, intervening in Mali as logistician to the French Defense Ministry puts the United States in the position of being a partner to an operation that is simultaneously a quasi-colonial counterinsurgency and a state-building adventure in both governance and culture. As a Senegalese resident put it, “Don’t ever think you can tell a Frenchman he can’t drink wine in one of his former colonies and expect to get away with it.”
t was another 32 hours before I arrived in Bamako. I found a bus system of sorts in Tambacounda to accomplish the trip. There weren’t any more flat tires, but I did witness adolescent ticket agents, border hiccups, random vehicle transfers, impromptu traveler cooperatives and another mom with a toddler, a boy this time, who had never sat near a white man. Google’s 18-hour prediction was only off by 38 hours.
But I did get answers to my questions: Yes, people in western Mali feel safe. No, they are not afraid of the Tuareg, the Salafis or anyone else. They are saddened by what happened in Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. They regret the violence. In some places, they have taken in refugees. But the women of western Mali do not feel forced to discard their beautiful, sleeveless dresses or to start wearing the hijab. In Bamako, wine flows and music plays. But in the northeast, despite the French intervention, the drums remain silent and the bottles corked.
The difference between American and French diplomats, according to a U.S. State Department cliché, is that the French act like a world power when they are not, but the Americans pretend they are not a world power when they are. “The French always talk”, a Nigerien official told me in Niamey, as we discussed our countries’ different approaches to advising missions, “but you Americans are practical.” Back in 1885, American envoys observed but did not participate in the Berlin Conference, and the lack of any official U.S. record—and continued support for free Liberia—suggests that Americans, then and now, found the entire process repugnant.
This raises an important distinction. The United States should make clear that it has supported the punitive French expedition because Tuareg leaders embraced radical Islam as an end to achieve independence. But that alone should not predispose the U.S. government to oppose a de facto Azawad state, or even in due course a de jure state. Self-determination is, after all, an American ideal, and the United States has greater capacity to exert moral leverage in this regard than the French, who might occasionally blur the line between neo-colonialism and “good governance.” In Iraq, the United States has effectively preserved Kurdish autonomy while carefully avoiding an open discussion of Kurdish statehood so as not to unleash gratuitous Persian or Anatolian wrath. Washington might benefit from a similar policy toward the Tuareg.
During the next two generations, the national agglomerations we see on maps of West Africa will oscillate between becoming fully free, which would lead them to embrace subnational traditions and tribes, and becoming more French, which would support a future for stabilized post-colonial state structures. In time the latter option might lead to a return of Senghor’s dream, at least in the form of functional regional organizations just short of two large states. The United States can live with either option; neither implies regime support for terrorism, and neither precludes the development of political pluralism and even democracy. A one-size-fits-all, pro-statist regional policy is probably not in the American interest.
In terms of U.S. foreign policy takeaways, we can certainly do better at understanding sub-state dynamics in places like West Africa and Southwest Asia, but even that is no guarantee that we can be effective mediators or interveners in local problems. If we are fortunate, some problems will be resolved in ways we can neither control nor anticipate. As we have learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq, some problems will ebb and flow, persisting for generations no matter what the United States says or does. Perhaps we will eventually use the wisdom we’ve gained from our adventures abroad to become a more patient and stoic power. Or perhaps not; as the French like to say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.