The Cable

Why we should be worried about Mali

Civil war in Syria and terrorism in Bulgaria are dominating headlines this week, but the ongoing deterioration of Mali is the type of simmering issue that is starting to claw its way on to the front pages. Among other things it is a vivid illustration of how the events of the "Arab Spring" are having profound ramifications in non-Arab countries; Ross Douthat's discussion of this is particularly insightful. An unintended consequence of the Libya war (which I supported at the time and still regard as on balance the right decision) has been the spillover of chaos, instability, and malevolent elements into neighboring countries such as Mali, which may be emerging as a new terrorist safe-haven.

As recently as one year ago Mali stood as an emerging African success story. An Islamic democracy that in 2007 hosted the global Community of Democracies ministerial meeting in its capital city of Bamako, Mali is now fractured with militant Islamists controlling half of its territory and an uneasy post-coup coalition of civilians and military controlling the other half. I worked with Malian leaders in the planning for the 2005 Community of Democracies ministerial in Santiago, and their pride in their nation's accomplishments was palpable, as was their enthusiasm in being an African Muslim democracy in an otherwise troubled region. Now that progress has dissipated. Their country is falling apart, and northern Mali may well be emerging as a new Al Qaeda base of operations, attracting jihadists of many nationalities, African and non-African.

Reports from the north, such as this New York Times story, bring chilling echoes of Afghanistan as it first fell under Taliban rule 15 years ago. Malian women and non-Islamist Muslims, especially Sufis, are being subject to horrific repression. One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths. (I have an article in the forthcoming issue of Policy Review exploring the connection between religious freedom violations and potential security threats, a connection that is unfortunately under-appreciated by the policy community). This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West.

American policy options are extremely limited, and the current focus on encouraging the African Union to take the lead is probably the best of a bad set of choices. American leadership is needed more urgently in other areas, such as Syria. But at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

What would leading from behind look like in Syria?

The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."

At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.

There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events -- what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era -- the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.

This description seems to fit the Egypt story, where the United States initially was unwilling to join in the effort to push Mubarak out of office, but joined later when Mubarak's early departure was perceived as the inevitable outcome. When a different outcome took shape in Bahrain, the United States got behind that, too.

A similar story is playing out in Syria. The United States has offered strong words of outrage at the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Syrian civil war, but has not matched dramatic rhetoric with dramatic action. Alas, there is plenty of dramatic action on the ground in Syria. The latest escalation suggests the Syrian civil war could be morphing into a full-scale conflagration.

The international community is now more than a few steps behind events -- leading from behind is becoming following from behind. And follow we must, for U.S. interests are too inextricably tied to the region for us to ignore what is happening.

President Obama often talks about trying to avoid distractions that would disrupt his focus away from what he considers to be the big issues at stake in his reelection, primarily issues of domestic policy and the economy. If events continue along their current trajectory, Syria may be one such distraction that he cannot avoid. Leading from behind may walk everyone right into a quagmire.

D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages