The Cable

What Mali reveals

As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:

Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."

The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.

Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.

Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:

"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 ... 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 ... 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."

Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Death of a concept: Farewell to 'wars of necessity'

For the past several years, I have been writing the blogging equivalent of a requiem for the passing of the "war of necessity vs. war of choice" rhetorical device (see here, here, here, here, and here).

This rhetorical device was patented by Richard Haass but wielded to good political effect by Team Obama in the earliest days of their tenure. The device overlaid the familiar but subjective "good war vs. bad war" template with another one that had the appearance of objectivity: the template of necessity. Some wars, it was argued, were so obviously right that they had to be fought. By contrast, other wars were so dubious they were practically frivolous flights of fancy.

The rhetorical device was flawed as a basis for analysis. It turned out "wars of necessity" (like Desert Storm) were hotly debated at the time with people of good will disagreeing as to how necessary they really were. They were, in other words, choices every bit as tough as the wars denounced as wars of choice. But as a political club for beating opponents, the framework served Obama's purposes nicely -- at least in 2009.

Back then, Obama argued that Afghanistan was a war of necessity -- unlike the war of choice (read: frivolous, stupid, pointless) in Iraq. Countries should win wars of necessity and end wars of choice. Ergo: surge in Afghanistan and abandon Iraq. Back then, the war in Afghanistan was popular and the war in Iraq was not, so the framework nicely provided a national interest rationale for doing what seemed politically expedient.

Of course, today both wars are unpopular and as the tide of public support ebbed away, so too did talk about the necessity of fighting and prevailing in Afghanistan. Last weekend's meetings between President Obama and President Karzai dramatically underscored how far the Obama Team has left the "war of necessity" frame in its rear-view mirror, as Kori Schake's excellent analysis shows.

It turns out, President Obama believes we can end a war of necessity much the same way he ended a war of choice: by leaving and letting the locals sort it out for themselves. That has not worked out well in Iraq, and the prospects of it working well in Afghanistan seem even more remote. (For what it is worth, it also hasn't worked too well in the "war of choice" that Obama chose to initiate: Libya.)

But walking away from a "war of necessity" might last for a decent interval, long enough for Obama to ponder the many potential "wars of choice" that darken his horizon, from Mali to Syria to Iran to North Korea.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images