WASHINGTON — Break out your pith helmet, wax your mustache and raise a toast at the club: The French have liberated Timbuktu.
It seems like the headline from the age of imperialism. In fact, it is one in a series of very modern conflicts and interventions across Africa.
Operation Serval, with grudging U.S. logistical support, has disrupted al-Qaida and its affiliates in northern Mali. Other African countries have pledged to provide a follow-on stabilization force. At the same time, American combat aircraft supported a failed French hostage rescue mission in Somalia — a country where America funds and facilitates 18,000 African troops who are driving the jihadist group al-Shabab from urban strongholds. The French are fresh from a swift, successful intervention to prevent a civil war in Ivory Coast. Ugandan forces, with American intelligence and logistical support, recently clashed with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) north of Djema in the Central African Republic. The United Nations is proposing to supplement its 17,000 troops in eastern Congo with a 2,500 member “peace enforcement force.”
All of these actions are responses to the same strategic challenge: the existence of vacuums of sovereignty. Whole regions lack just and effective government. Like an abandoned row house in a bad neighborhood, these portions of the planet (northern Mali, North Kivu, Somalia, the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, etc.) attract undesirable elements — militias, warlords, radical Islamists. Often they are not content with causing a local humanitarian catastrophe. They become prolific exporters of problems: refugee flows, criminal activity, regional instability, hijackers who run airplanes into buildings.
This problem — local anarchy generating global challenges — also results in a kind of geopolitical schizophrenia. It is easy, particularly in the academy, to criticize intervention as neocolonialism, imperialism and militarism. Until Bosnian or Congolese women are raped en masse. Until hundreds of thousands of Tutsis are killed with machetes. Until the day after 9/11. And then indifference, inaction and appeasement don't seem so obviously preferable.