Feature

Beyond Al Qaeda

As Western countries rush into Africa's troubled Sahel region, are we once again forgetting history?

For sheer sexiness, few news monikers can compete with the al Qaeda label.

This, in a word, is how one of the world's most remote and traditionally obscure regions, Africa's arid and largely empty Sahel, has suddenly come to be treated as a zone of great strategic importance in the wake of the recent offensive by a hodgepodge of armed groups, including one called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, that has threatened the survival of the Malian state and sent violent ripples throughout the neighboring area.

France has responded with alacrity and seeming confusion to the Mali crisis, sending in an intervention force that at first seemed destined to be very small and then immediately ramping up the numbers into the thousands, all while scurrying to enlist regional partners in places like Nigeria, Chad, and Niger.

Paris has exhibited great difficulty in conveying a clear aim or speaking with one voice, saying contradictory things in rapid succession -- promising that this will be a limited intervention quickly handed over to the Africans, while vowing to do whatever is required to stamp out terrorist movements in Mali and restore legitimate government.

To understand what is really going on in Mali and in the broader Sahel today, though, it is vital to think through decades of colonial and independent history in the region. And when one does, it becomes clear that, apart from the trendiness of al Qaeda, a relative newcomer as factors go, what is most striking is the remarkable continuity of this region's crises.

One of my first big stories as a foreign correspondent came in 1983 when freelancing in West Africa for the Washington Post. I made a river crossing into Chad from Cameroon aboard a dugout pirogue in order to cover a flare up in fighting between France and Libyan-backed insurgents there who threatened to topple the government of the day.

Less than 24 hours and a helicopter ride to the front later, I observed from a sandy trench as French jets pounded rebel positions in the desert. Their aim was to stop the insurgents' advance toward the capital, much as it was in Mali last week.

The lifelong geopolitical dream of the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi took many guises, but his goal, at bottom, was always to opportunistically project power southward, across the Sahara and far and wide into the Sahel, a region that for these purposes extends from Sudan to Senegal.

Already in the early 1970s -- long before anyone had heard of al Qaeda -- Qaddafi had formed an Islamic legion of Sahelian recruits. Although the Libyan leader's rule was essentially secular at home, he was an opportunist abroad, using Islam and his own peculiar brew of pan-Arabism as both intoxicant and glue for rebellions aimed at challenging the political order left in place by European colonialism. The Libyan leader's bag of tricks involved annexation (Chad), merger (Sudan) and most grandiosely, pan-African union.

Qaddafi's colorful behavior and megalomania made it easy to overlook the extent to which the troubles he helped foment were a carryover from much older struggles. In the late 19th century, France and Britain vied mightily for control over the Sahel, the eastern extremity of which (today's South Sudan) was a cornerstone of their respective imperial schemes.

Paris, already enjoying possession of North Africa, dreamed of ruling over the Sahel, from the Atlantic coast in Senegal all the way to White Nile, in Sudan. This would have permitted utter French domination, both east-west and north-south, of trade between Europe, the Maghreb, and the population and resources centers of West Africa.

If anything, Britain's dream was even more ambitious. It was based on Cecil Rhodes's scheme to build a continuous rail network -- a virtual spine traveling the length of the continent and linking Cape Town and all of southern Africa's vast mineral wealth to Cairo, via people- and produce-rich East Africa.

None of these grand designs considered, however, the existence of fiercely independent-minded peoples, and especially Muslims with well organized societies and sophisticated martial traditions throughout the contested Sahelian region.

Both Britain and France faced some of the stiffest tests of their imperial era here. For London, this came in campaigns to subdue Sudan, and for Paris it involved Samori Ture, the founder of an amorphous Islamic state, centered not far from the region of today's fighting in Mali, that resisted conquest through most of the 1880s.

Pundits who bang on about the events in Mali on television today speculate glibly about the possible linkup of militant Islamic movements in places like Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, and northern Nigeria, potentially constituting a vast sea of Muslim radicalism and hostility to the West. They would do better to understand that such currents are inherent to the politics and culture of this region and are in no way a recent import. Rejection of borders and of the European drawn states is as old as the borders themselves, and Islam has always played a central role in this, as intellectual base, religious justification and rallying catalyst. These currents have been given added force and coherence by the age-old movement of peoples and ideas via pastoralism, overland pilgrimage to Mecca and the existence of large, sprawling and aggrieved transnational ethnic groups -- like the Tuareg, Hausa, and Fulani, to name three -- whose interests were never considered by the imperial mapmakers.

Most of those who write on today's crisis seem to ignore that the Tuareg, who are a key to events in Mali, have been sporadically fighting for decades against the country of that name we see on the map. During a visit I made to Timbuktu in the 1990s, Tuareg rebels fired mortars into the town that landed within meters of my hotel with no prior warning, scrambling tourists and creating a state of emergency.

As for other rebel groups in the region, their general pattern has been to raise tensions like this, forcing the government, in effect, to sue for peace by offering money, talks about greater autonomy, or other concessions. What was new this time had less to do with the presence in the equation of an al Qaeda spinoff than with the fact that there has been no government worthy of the name in the capital, Bamako, since a military coup overthrew the elected president last March.

Before we start breaking out hammers in search of nails, this crisis should serve as a powerful reminder of the necessity of much stronger preventive diplomacy in Africa in general, a thread that runs through major crises in Rwanda, the Congo and most recently Côte d'Ivoire. When I spent time in Mali in the summer of 2011, Western diplomats seemed scantily informed and almost blasé about the situation there; this at a time when the political cognoscenti was already warning of an advanced state of rot that involved mounting corruption, drug trafficking, and high-level dawdling over rising Islamic militancy.

However, even the best diplomacy, which we clearly haven't had in Africa, won't change the fact that the Sahel is in for a period of extended unrest and uncertainty. Its vastness contains some of the most sparsely inhabited real estate anywhere, peppered here and there by far-flung population centers with little economic viability or connection to the outside world. Places like these are easy to attack and hard to hold, and the militants' game of blackmail for greater resources is extremely tempting.

Whatever the political or religious labels of the militants, however, the biggest driver of turmoil in this region in the future will be population. The peoples of the arid Sahel have some of the highest birth rates in the world, and there is little prospect that they will be able to accommodate the quadrupling or more of their populations, as projected by the U.N., before century's end. Under such scenarios, Mali will go from 16 million or so today to 75 million people. Even poorer Niger, next door, will surge from today's similar population base to 125 million.

Explosions like these will make a mockery of the political map of Africa that is familiar today, as major ethnic clusters outstrip the claims of the present-day states to govern them. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb surely must be dealt with now, but over time it will be the least of our worries.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

Obama's First Inaugural -- Revised

What if America's new president had told us what would really happen in his first four years?

As Washington gears up for President Barack Obama's second inaugural address, public opinion polls show that Americans have much lower expectations for Obama's second term than they did four years ago for his first term. The soaring rhetoric of the 2008 campaign and Obama's first inaugural address might have contributed to those inflated expectations. So, as a public service before his second term begins, we here at Foreign Policy thought it would be a good idea to revisit an abridged version of Obama's first inaugural address and, in light of his first term, revise the text just a wee bit to reflect a more realistic era. Enjoy!

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors the implacable opposition I am about to encounter.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition setting the bar super-low so that simple policy competence will make me look good.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be barely met in piecemeal fashion as we lurch from self-imposed crisis to crisis.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear until someone tries to bomb a plane with explosives in their underpants, unity of purpose over conflict and discord until someone tries to build a mosque near Ground Zero.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We will replace them with much larger recriminations, grander conspiracy theories, and even more stale dogma.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things and go straight for the truly infantile things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness our elected officials will continue to honor your quixotic, unsustainable preferences of lower taxes and more government services.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts except for lame-duck sessions or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame compromise over sheer bloody-mindedness.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. But let's be clear about individual greatness -- you didn't build that.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. And let me assure you that my administration will deport anyone who does try to come to this country unannounced and work hard.

We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth, no matter what the Pew Global Attitudes project says in their polling. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. Our deficits will remain unparalleled for years to come. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed sounds like what will continue to happen for the near future.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking blaming the other party for the state of America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs a half-hearted stimulus but to lay a new foundation for growth do next to nothing on solving America's housing crisis.

We will harness the sun with ill-conceived government subsidies and the winds and frack the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age cause student loan debt to skyrocket to new highs.

All this we can do. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans -- and they are right to do so. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage correctly inferred that we have reached a new peak in partisanship that will prevent Washington from accomplishing more than one big plan at a time.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply. They will be replaced by far loopier, less rational arguments.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified Congress can stomach passing a budget or raising the debt ceiling.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good the eagerness of others to buy dollar-denominated debt. We will make sure this demand is met.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals, because it's pretty obvious that safety will come first.

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake, except for drones or anything else JSOC dreams up.

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead from behind with logistical support once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. We will pivot away from these old allies as fast as humanly possible.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please -- again, except for drones. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use without bothering to consult Congress. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint, and the sheer awesomeness of SEAL Team Six.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort hysteria, even greater cooperation unilateral action and understanding rejection of anodyne United Nations treaties between nations. We'll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in leave Afghanistan no matter what by 2014.

With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat make modest progress on nuclear arms reductions and nuclear safety over inexplicable and ill-informed Republican objections and roll back disagree with China about the specter of a warming planet.

We will not apologize for our way of life even though I suspect I'll be accused of doing that very thing four years from now, nor will we waver in its defense.

And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." Just to reiterate: I. Have. Drones.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect and lots and lots and lots of drones.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on how many drones we fire in your general direction what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will prevaricate a fair amount about whether we like the devil we know better than the protesters we don't, especially if you are housing a major U.S. naval base extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to make repeated, vague, and empty promises to complete the Doha Development round and then let it die an ignoble death work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say you are so taking the lead in your own security theaters we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it....

Our challenges may be new built up from decades of misbegotten fiscal and monetary policies, the instruments with which we meet them may be new inspire loathing and revulsion in the American people, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.

These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility rebalancing and leading from behind -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task non-congressionally authorized kinetic military actions....

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to acknowledge expertise in areas in which we are ignorant and relied on murky online sources of information as all of our elite institutions revealed scandals, lies, and cover-ups galore let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it a hotter planet, more long-term unemployment, and even more dysfunctional political discourse safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you.

And God bless the United States of America.

Alex Wong/Getty Images