Opinions columnist, 2007-2022

Break out your pith helmet, wax your mustache and raise a toast at the club: The French have liberated Timbuktu.

It seems like the headline from the age of imperialism. In fact, it is one in a series of very modern conflicts and interventions across Africa.

Operation Serval, with grudging U.S. logistical support, has disrupted al-Qaeda and its affiliates in northern Mali. Other African countries have pledged to provide a follow-on stabilization force. At the same time, U.S. combat aircraft supported a failed French hostage rescue mission in Somalia — a country where America funds and facilitates 18,000 African troops who are driving the jihadist group al-Shabab from urban strongholds. The French are fresh from a swift, successful intervention to prevent a civil war in Ivory Coast. Ugandan forces, with U.S. intelligence and logistical support, recently clashed with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) north of Djema in the Central African Republic. The United Nations is proposing to supplement its 17,000 troops in eastern Congo with a 2,500-member “peace enforcement force.” The U.N. Security Council has approved the use of surveillance drones in that operation.

All of these actions are responses to the same strategic challenge: the existence of vacuums of sovereignty. Entire regions — sometimes attached to a given nation only by an accident of imperial mapmaking — lack just and effective government. Like an abandoned rowhouse in a bad neighborhood, these portions of the planet (northern Mali, North Kivu, Somalia, the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, etc.) attract undesirable elements — militias, warlords, radical Islamists. Often these groups are not content with causing a local humanitarian catastrophe. They become prolific exporters of problems: refugee flows, criminal activity, regional instability, hijackers who run airplanes into buildings. While not every civil war produces a vacuum of sovereignty, the long and nasty ones certainly can, as we are seeing in the Somalization of Syria.

This problem — local anarchy generating global challenges — also results in a kind of geopolitical schizophrenia. It is easy, particularly in the academy, to criticize intervention as neocolonialism, imperialism and militarism. Until Bosnian or Congolese women are raped en masse. Until hundreds of thousands of Tutsis are killed with machetes. Until the day after 9/11. And then indifference, inaction and appeasement don’t seem so obviously preferable.

Yet the policy options to encourage even a modicum of order in lawless places — creating substitutes for sovereignty — are limited and flawed. Direct military interventions are not uncommon — between 1960 and 2005, the French alone undertook 46 of them in former African colonies — but their outcomes have varied. Britain’s Operation Palliser restored democracy to Sierra Leone in 2000. America’s Operation Restore Hope ended hopelessly at Mogadishu in 1993. France’s Operation Turquoise in 1994 provided cover for Hutu genocidaires, who had been French allies, to escape into eastern Congo. (I’ve been to the spot in Rwanda where French forces constructed a volleyball court over a mass grave of murdered Tutsis.) Military action, under the right circumstances, can be effective, even morally urgent. It can also have unintended consequences and does not solve long-term problems of governance.

U.N. peacekeepers are another substitute for sovereignty. Blue helmets have immediate legitimacy and credibility. But U.N. forces are far better at keeping an existing peace than creating order out of chaos. Their mandate and capabilities are limited — in eastern Congo, the zone of sovereignty they impose doesn’t reach far beyond their line of sight. Regional security organizations such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States have potential but almost no logistical capacity. So the United States often conducts interventions by supporting African proxies: Kenyan, Ethiopian and Ugandan forces in Somalia, Ugandan troops in pursuit of the LRA.

And Americans, being Americans, are drawn toward technological solutions to political problems. Drones strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. This imposes one narrow form of order — the removal of specific threats — but it does not encourage political stability or improve local conditions.

All of these policy options can be appropriate and are being applied, in various forms, by the Obama administration. The most important goal, however, is not to provide temporary substitutes for sovereignty but to strengthen that attribute itself. This is the opposite of colonialism — the building of local military and civil capacity and improving public health and economic growth. These are the most difficult tasks in development, and the easiest to cut in a budget retrenchment. They are also cheaper, in the long run, than constantly fighting to contain the chaos.

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