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.
Yet the policy options to encourage even a modicum of order in lawless places — creating substitutes for sovereignty — are limited and flawed. Direct military interventions are not uncommon — between 1960 and 2005, the French alone undertook 46 of them in former African colonies — but their outcome has varied. Britain's Operation Palliser restored democracy to Sierra Leone in 2000. America's Operation Restore Hope ended hopelessly at Mogadishu in 1993. France's Operation Turquoise in 1994 provided cover for Hutu genocidaires, who had been French allies, to escape into eastern Congo.
United Nations peacekeepers are another substitute for sovereignty. Blue helmets have immediate legitimacy and credibility. But U.N. forces are far better at keeping an existing peace than creating order out of chaos. Their mandate and capabilities are limited. Regional security organizations such as the African Union and ECOWAS have potential but almost no logistical capacity. So the U.S. conducts interventions by supporting African proxies: Kenyan, Ethiopian and Ugandan forces in Somalia, Ugandan troops in pursuit of the LRA.
And Americans — being Americans — are drawn toward technological solutions to political problems. Drones strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. This imposes one narrow form of order — the removal of specific threats — but it does not encourage political stability or improve local conditions.
All of these policy options can be appropriate, and are being applied, in various forms, by the Obama administration. The most important goal, however, is not to provide temporary substitutes for sovereignty but to strengthen that attribute itself. This is the opposite of colonialism — the building of local military and civil capacity and improving public health and economic growth. These are the most difficult tasks in development, and the easiest to cut in a budget retrenchment. They are also cheaper, in the long run, than constantly fighting to contain the chaos.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP