Two Approaches to Intervention in Mali: The Washington Post Way Vs. The UN Way

Conversations, debate, and dialogue about how to approach military intervention in Mali are reaching a fever pitch.  What emerges are two theories of intervention in Mali.

The first is best encapsulated by this Washington Post editorial and accompanying snarky tweet by Jackson Diehl. This theory posits that Northern Mali is quickly turning into a terrorist haven, replete with morally outrageous abuses heaped upon the local population. Expeditious eviction of the bad guys through military intervention should be the singular priority. Here’s how the unsigned Washington Post editorial calling for expedited military intervention concludes:

Negotiations, which began this month, are certainly worth a try. But it’s also worth bearing in mind what is happening while this process drags on. As a Malian minister told the Security Council, “there are floggings, amputation of limbs, summary executions, children forced to become soldiers, rapes, stoning, looting and the destruction of cultural and historical sites.” Perhaps the diplomats in Turtle Bay can conclude it’s prudent to allow such atrocities to continue for another 10 or 12 months. But morality as well as common sense suggests that intervention must come sooner.

The political processes that could obviate the need for military intervention (such as the promising negations lead by the President of Burkina Faso) are barely given mention. So too is the question of political stability in Mali. Presumably, the international community would intervene to help the Malian government wrest control of its territory from terrorists. But what is the Malian government? Just this morning, the leader of the military coup (which precipitated this crisis) arrested the Prime Minister and forced his entire government to resign on live television. The Washington Post theory does not even consider the importance of the quality of the political leadership on who’s behalf the international community would be intervening. Rather, military intervention is so urgent that it should proceed even without an accompanying political process.

The second theory is best encapsulated by this op-ed by Alex de Waal and this report by Ban Ki Moon to the Security Council. This theory does not negate the potential value of international intervention in Mali, but it does say that such an intervention can only succeed if done in tandem with a political process. “Outrage at the abuses perpetrated by the Islamist rebels should not provoke a moral panic in which we lose sight of what will deliver a solution,” writes de Waal.

The report from the Secretary General makes the same point.

A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hard-line extremist and criminal elements in the north. Before that stage is reached, however, the focus must be on initiating a broad-based and inclusive political dialogue aimed at forging national consensus around a road map for the transition and at addressing the long-standing grievances of the Tuaregs and other communities in the north…

Every passing day brings with it the risk of a further entrenchment of terrorist groups and criminal networks. Nevertheless, I am profoundly aware that, if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already extremely fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses. It could also risk ruining any chance of a negotiated political solution to the crisis, which remains the best hope for achieving long-term stability in Mali.

Despite the Washington Post’s wishes to the contrary, this second theory of intervention is so far dominant in most policy making circles. Countries are reluctant to put their soldiers in harm’s way without giving peace negotiations a chance and without a reliable partner in the government of Mali.

Without those two elements in place, it is hard to see how international intervention can even succeed?

UPDATE: Read this report from Colum Lynch. Perhaps it would be more accurate to calls these the French theory Vs. The American theory?