PARIS - The problem with making statements when you are the President is that you have to follow through.
Before the French intervention in Mali, President François Hollande said on Jan. 11 that in Mali, France had "no other purpose than to fight terrorism.” On Jan. 15, he revised his motives: now, on top of “stopping the terrorist aggression,” France wanted to “help Mali recover its territorial integrity” and make sure there were “legitimate authorities and an electoral process.”
No one is denying the seriousness of the situation in Mali. The armed groups from the north – ruthless jihadists committing atrocities – were heading south and threatening to take the capital, Bamako. France stepped up to make sure this African state wouldn’t fall under the rule of extremists – with all the regional consequences that this could entail.
But as military operations are amplifying and gaining momentum, France’s purpose and mandate would benefit from a little clarity.
No one can blame France for deciding to use force in Mali without a legal international mandate – it had received a formal appeal from authorities in Bamako requesting emergency bilateral assistance. Whether this intervention is legal in a strict “UN sense” is a different matter, though. France deployed ground troops without the explicit approval of the UN – the United Nations Security Council resolution passed in December only allowing for an African-led intervention.
When a war – any war – starts to drag on longer than expected, people start asking questions. To justify its decision and be transparent with its partners, Paris should clearly state the length, scope and objectives of its military action in Mali.
This is the best way to avoid “mission creep,” i.e. getting caught in a quagmire of endless new military objectives – with a military effort that keeps expanding, troops going deeper into the country and military excesses waiting to happen. This is exactly what happened in Afghanistan.
There is something else that we have learned from the Mali intervention: when the interests, the strategy and the values at play demand it, François Hollande’s France is capable of emancipating itself from the UN resolutions’ rigid stranglehold.
In 1999 in Kosovo, as Slobodan Milosevic’s deadly militias were threatening the stability of a whole part of Europe, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took a similar stand. The absence of a UN resolution (vetoed by Russia) did not stop France from doing what was geopolitically and morally right.
Wars come and go; every situation has its specific characteristics, and the ghost of Iraq’s traumatic war – based on lies and carried out without UN support – is still in everyone’s minds. France has always considered itself as a “daughter of the UN.”
But Mali and Kosovo are proof of what democracies are capable of when their actions stop being contingent on a Chinese or Russian veto. This resonates particularly strongly as we watch the slaughter of the Syrian people, arguing that we are powerless and hiding behind the UN “paralysis.”