France to the Rescue: The Good Things About the Mali Intervention

Draped in the tricolor, a man in Mali shows his support for the intervention. Joe Penney/Reuters

The French intervention in Mali is a good thing for at least five reasons.

It says no to obscurantism and terrorism in the region. The response of the Malian Taliban and what that response tells us about their discipline and their military capacity (for example, their ability to down planes) will finally prove, if more proof were needed, that we are dealing with a criminal army: organized, trained, fearsome.

It blocks the true aim of the Ansar Dine group's advance on the capital, Bamako, which is to reinforce Islamist cells operating to the west, in Mauritania, and to the southeast, in Niger; to join up, farther south, with the fighters of Boko Haram, the radical Islamist movement that has sown death and destruction in Nigeria for three years now; and thus to open up a lethal corridor through the subregion, a corridor that would, were it not for the French operation, have been nearly impossible to breach.

As a matter of principle, it confirms the responsibility to protect civilian populations that underpinned the earlier intervention in Libya. The first use of the doctrine merely sets a precedent, but the second is case law, and, for those who favor the duty to intervene, for those who oppose the convenient muddling of the right of self-determination with the right of the rich nations to wash their hands of the wretched of the earth, for all those who think that democracy should not stop at the border any more than terrorism does, the French intervention is an undeniable victory.

It reaffirms the old idea of just war brought back into fashion by the Libyan revolution. François Hollande de­cided to use force only as a last resort. He did so in accord with international law as articulated in the Security Council's resolution of Dec. 12. He satisfied himself that the operation had a "reasonable" chance of success and that the harm that it would inflict would, "in all likelihood," be less than that which it would prevent. That is the lesson of the jurist Grotius and of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an elegant and useful lesson in practical philosophy.

And finally, it restates the prominent role of France in the front lines of the struggle for democracy. Is Hollande following in the footsteps of Sarkozy? As if that were the question! As if what were at stake here were not a thousand times more important than any political rivalry or personal competition. Seen in U.S. terms, France (regardless of party) appears to be in the process of inventing a strategic doctrine that tackles from the rear the twin evils of neoconservatism and noninterventionism.

But the fact remains that, as I write these lines, the game is far from over. It would be equally wrong to hang out the flags and declare the mission accomplished.

The leaders of Ansar Dine have made terrorist threats. A few hours after operations began, Omar Ould Hamaha, alias Redbeard, lashed out at the French who, having "opened the gates of hell," would have only themselves to blame when they got burned. This is the familiar apocalyptic rhetoric of al Qaeda, of course, but it is also a very real threat against the civilian populations who are, as usual, the target of such groups.

There is the question of French hostages who, as the master blackmailers have learned, no doubt to their great surprise, are no longer the shields that Ansar Dine had believed them to be and that it is no longer enough simply to hold them quietly. How do you react when you lose your life-insurance policy? Do you just drop it like a bulky package? Do you take revenge? Do you continue to negotiate for whatever you can get? Or must we prepare to mourn one or more French Daniel Pearls? One shudders at the prospect.

On the ground, there are the very particular conditions of desert warfare. It is often said that the desert is the most naked ground imaginable and that one is more exposed, more vulnerable, there than anywhere else. That is not true; indeed, the opposite is true. Anyone who witnessed, in Libya, fighters buried in the sands of the dunes, anyone who saw a column of pickup trucks that no satellite had spotted surging out of the nothingness in which they had been camouflaged, knows that this war will be long and treacherous and that defeating the Malian Taliban will not be a walk in the park.

Everything must be done to pursue a political solution while continuing military strikes. How should the Tuaregs be approached? What can or should be done about their longstanding, perhaps legitimate, desire for independence? Who, in the end, is really with whom in the motley coalition that has cut northern Mali off from the rest of the country? And in Bamako, who can be counted on to help promote the beginnings of democracy? So many questions and so few answers. Handling those questions will require as much finesse as firmness.

A soldier, part of French military forces in Mali, participates in first-aid training. Joe Penney/Reuters

And finally, inevitably, there will soon arise the chorus of Cassandras crying quagmire, another Vietnam, the adventurism of a war that was supposed to last only a few days but that has ground on. Easy words in a democracy of opinion. Will France's leaders have enough grit to stand up to the chorus once it finds its voice, to meet it with steady determination and clear explanations of what is at stake?

What is certain is that François Hollande is facing his first real political test—and his first confrontation with history.