France exists in the American mind as a nation whose days of military glory passed away with Napoleon. Perhaps this is because of their strong opposition to the Iraq War.
Perhaps it is because of their disgraceful collapse of morale in the face of the German invasion of 1940. Perhaps it is even because the “Simpsons” famously dubbed them “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
Regardless of where it came from, this has never been a very good picture of a nation that, if anything, has been waging war too often since 1945. Cheese-eating surrender monkeys would not have stayed so long and at such cost in Vietnam or Algeria, nor would they have intervened in Africa some 50 times since 1960.
They would certainly not have deployed troops to Mali, where rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seized large chunks of the country and threatened to overrun the rest.
This time, though, the French should be praised. The Islamists in the north of Mali have been laying down a version of sharia law in the territory they control so extreme that it would make the average Iranian mullah feel ashamed to be sharing a religion with them. Stories of executions, amputations and desecrations of cultural sites on a widespread scale leave little doubt what their vision of Mali’s future looks like.
“For the Islamists, a human being is like an ant you squash, like an animal you slaughter,” was one account from the recaptured city of Gao.
Not coincidentally, Malian, French and West African troops have met joyous crowds in the areas they have taken back from the rebels in recent days. If it hadn’t become so loaded a phrase, one would be tempted to say that they were greeted as liberators.
Cheering crowds aside, there is also the issue of the anti-Western nature of AQIM. A group does not choose to put al-Qaeda in its name because it intends on selling t-shirts. To align oneself with al-Qaeda is to announce in no uncertain terms that one is an enemy of Western civilization and of the United States in particular.
Thus the Obama administration should be commended for, after some initial hesitation, deciding to support the French in their endeavors.
Worth keeping in mind is that all that was being asked of us was cargo planes, fueling assistance and intelligence support. If we refused to provide cargo planes to help a NATO ally fight al-Qaeda it would raise some pretty serious questions about our foreign policy goals, to say the least.
There have been some understandable objections. A line of critique that I find somewhat persuasive holds that the French, and most of NATO along with them, need to be taught a lesson for neglecting to adequately fund their militaries for decades.
This is an entirely understandable impulse, but I wonder whether the U.S. really has the credibility at the moment to lecture our allies on committing to things that they have no plan to pay for. Beyond that, there has to be some level where we have to say to hell with the French defense budget and we simply do what needs to be done.
Obviously, we still need to be careful on the extent of aid we provide. Mali’s government came into power in an anti-democratic coup. They are no angels, better than the alternative as they may be. France’s record in Françafrique is also such that we should be keeping an eye on them as well.
But let’s not sink ourselves into cynicism just yet.
For as long as the French still believe that liberté, égalité, and fraternité are worth fighting for, they should be able to count on the U.S. being by their side.