The proxy war is like a bank shot in a game of pool played with snowballs. It won't work in the Sahara or anywhere else, and surely even the most gung-ho American interventionists do not want to be holding the bag when Tuareg fighters switch sides again to shake hand with the Islamists or otherwise refuse to play Washington's game. And now that France, under François Hollande, is no longer playing the role of the pyromaniac fireman in Mali, there is no reason for the United States to audition for it.
So what is to be done? Ultimately, Malians themselves will have to take the lead in resolving a crisis that has endangered their neighbors. Outside actors can only help all sides seek an honorable way to make the Malian north safe again, partly by working to get Bamako to accept the assistance of its neighbors. At the moment, foreign military intervention, whether it comes from ECOWAS or elsewhere, will be viewed as an invasion in both the south and the north. That has to change, which means that politics has to come first. A political solution will be harder to achieve than a military one, but you get what you pay for. The first step towards it will be finding legitimate and sensible interlocutors (sitting Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra is a possibility) while sidelining the hotheaded, the foolish, and the cynical whether they are in Mali, Niger ... or Washington.