Vietnam, Mali and the Al Qaeda Hydra


What do Vietnam and Mali have in common? Well, both are former French colonies. Both experienced (and still are experiencing in Mali) armed uprisings by a significant portion of the population; both have had external forces arrive to help those doing the uprising; the French government made a decision to act militarily in support of the current (at the time, in the case of Vietnam) government and finally, in both cases the French asked for and received assistance from the United States in fighting against the uprising. Actions and events in Mali are starting to sound familiar.

So far, assistance from the U.S. is limited to aerial refueling, and equipment and passenger (French troops) transport. France, Mali, and the U.S. are in talks regarding U.S. assistance in transporting troops from other African nations to help the Malian army as well. As of yet, there are no “boots on the ground” in terms of U.S. combat troops and the U.S. has a policy of not providing direct assistance to governments that have not been democratically elected. The current government in Mali is the result of a military coup that occurred almost a year ago. Assisting the French is fine under U.S. policy.

The president is, of course, absolutely authorized to take these steps in his role as Commander-in-Chief. However, the similarities between the initial conditions in Vietnam and in Mali cannot be overlooked. What happens next? What if French and Malian troops are driven back out of Timbuktu, a city they just recaptured at the beginning of this week? Will the U.S. help re-retake that city? Will the president pull U.S. troops out of “unsustainable” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only to engage them in another war in Mali? I hope not. It would be nice if the French were made to handle their own post-colonial problems. The cynical part of me (ok, it’s a large part of me) says that President Obama will engage further in Mali, but won’t say anything at first (remember how reporters mocked Mitt Romney in the foreign policy debate for bringing up problems in Mali as something that should concern the U.S.?) My cynical self suggests to me that once he gets around more involvement in Mali, the president will find some way to completely justify this intervention versus any kind of intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq. IF that happens, my cynical self will be happy and my optimistic self will be saddened by the apparent hypocrisy.

I’ve seen some op-ed pieces that have raised the issue of the War Powers Resolution as limiting what President Obama can do in Mali. Interestingly, the War Powers Resolution was passed in 1973, just as the war in Vietnam was winding down. Assuming that the War Powers Resolution will limit the president and/or becoming indignant that the president is “ignoring” the War Powers Resolution is silly. Since its passage, no president, Democrat or Republican, has paid the slightest bit of attention to the War Powers Resolution and all of them have stated that they view it as an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to curtail the powers of Commander-in-Chief. To those people who suggest that since the Supreme Court has not ruled on it and therefore it still holds the force of law, yes, you are right. However, nobody has challenged presidential actions as contrary to the War Powers Resolution. Until that happens, the Supreme Court cannot address the matter. Given that nobody in Congress has challenged any president under that act, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that that’s a pretty good indication that members of Congress see a level of futility in that move.

I am still hopeful that the president is not leading us into a Vietnam-like situation in Mali. That would be truly ironic. However, having said that, the issue of Al Qaeda support for the rebels in northern Mali and elsewhere should definitely concern the United States. It is more evidence that while the deaths of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders have dealt a severe blow to the central organization, Islamist groups have fractured and are spreading out across Africa with increasing speed. Al Qaeda is not gone, despite the decimation of the primary leadership, and it appears that, if not stronger, they are showing up in more places. They do resemble the mythical Hydra fought by Hercules. If you cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, it grew two to replace it and one of its heads was impervious to any weapon. How do you battle something like that? Hercules solved the problem by having his nephew cauterize each wound immediately after he cut the head off. Finally, he used his hands to rip off the head that was impervious to weapons and buried it under a boulder. How do you cauterize the Al Qaeda Hydra and prevent it from rising again? Or at least prevent it from rising in any seriously threatening manner? That is a question that will face American foreign policy makers and wonks for several years.

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