Nothing has surprised me more, since I began doing this blog, than the reaction to what I thought was a relatively mild comment the other day on the "liberator" of Timbuktu and the French military intervention in Mali. To be sure, my post gave in to the vice of cynicism, which I try, not always successfully, to guard against. I did not rehearse the series of posts in which I'd tried to look at the intervention from various angles. I credited my readers with having divined my ambivalence about the military action, which I deemed necessary as an emergency step in a confused and rapidly deteriorating situation but which I thought--and still think--likely to degenerate from the exhilaration of a too-easy victory to the disillusionment that invariably ensues when the brutal injustice of religious-ethnic domination gives way to the rough justice of military occupation and its various pathologies.
What I had not reckoned with was the intensity of feeling on the part of any number of blog readers who seemed to believe above all else that France had scored a just victory in a just war. She had for once "done the right thing," as one commenter noted, and for that had been rewarded.
This is a euphoric interpretation that I cannot share. Another reader insisted that it was my inveterate dislike of François Hollande had led me astray. This rather took me back. If anything I feel that I'm too easy on Hollande because I broadly identify with the socialist "family" that his brand of politics is supposed to represent. I certainly saw nothing to dislike in Hollande's military decision, since it was a decision in which I believed he had no choice. Mali would obviously be better off under the occupation of some pan-African military force, the Malian government forces (as flawed as they no doubt are), and French troops than under total rule by the thugs and warlords who had imposed their domination in the north with the aid of mercenaries unleashed by the toppling of Qaddafi in Libya.
I recall no similar outburst of French patriotism when Sarkozy rescued the government of Alessandre Outtara, the democratically elected leader of Côte d'Ivoire. Surely that was a more clear-cut example of "doing the right thing," but few on the French left hailed Sarkozy's move as a blow for "liberty, equality, and fraternity." The intervention in Mali has more in common, I think, with the intervention in Libya: a dire situation was deteriorating, beleaguered internal forces had called for help, but the aftermath was far from predictable and unlikely to lead in any simple way to liberty, equality, or fraternity. Still, one might reasonably conclude that the reasons to act outweighed the reasons not to act. That was my judgment in Libya as it was in Mali, but about the Libya decision one heard a good deal of cynical commentary in France exposing any number of possible ulterior motives for Sarkozy's action, including the need to improve his standing in the polls and his image as a leader. But the merest hint of such criticism in this latest intervention seems to have triggered a rattling of sabers I can't recall having elicited with any other blog post.
Perhaps the comparison of Hollande's Timbuktu speech with George W. Bush's 2003 "mission accomplished" speech on the decks of the Lincoln had something to do with this reaction. Low blow! Well, I will confess to having shot from the hip. The comparison was ill-chosen and no doubt concealed more than it revealed. But I persist, since I believe that Hollande's speech was at the very least premature. The hard part of this war is only just beginning, although any further action in Mali is likely to be of such low intensity that it will go unnoticed in the French media for months on end. The north of Mali will be returned to the benign neglect it is used to, and there will be no news compelling enough to force the French to draw up a final balance sheet on their action. In any case, the initial entry in the ledger, "saved from collapse," will probably be enough to outweigh all the subsequent entries of extortion, murder, kidnapping, smuggling, bribery, and warlordism--the stuff of business as usual in a tribal region not generally of much interest to the rest of the world or even the former colonial powers, outside of a few enclaves rich in minerals of one sort or another. Analysts used to looking at international politics in terms of interests will note that France, in rescuing northern Mali, protected one approach to its uranium supply in nearby Niger. When a powerful interest is at stake, it can become remarkably easier to do the right thing.
I would simply ask my French critics to ask themselves whether they don't themselves often rail against "American exceptionalism" and America's refusal to examine how cleverly it contrives to make its self-interest coincide with its idea of doing the right thing in any particular situation. France is no less immune from this vice than the United States. Indeed, there is no better analyst of the way in which such self-deception works than La Rochefoucauld, whose works I commend to my critics.