French foreign policy in Africa

The “related links” tab on this Spiegel article is split down the middle between other pieces detailing French military action in the Central African Republic and articles bemoaning Germany’s unwillingness to risk military intervention on an international stage. This split is fair, since the article on one hand lauds France as “Europe’s sole military force” (subtitled “Giving France respect where it is due”) and bemoans that Germans and other Europeans “prefer navel gazing to action.” [1] Moreover, the article is linked to in another article detailing some of the challenges faced by the German military in Afghanistan and its as-of-yet minimal role in Central Africa as a new Defense Minister takes office.

The first article does a pretty good job of detailing the reasons why the recent history of French foreign policy so fascinates me:

  • France was one of the driving forces behind the NATO intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi
  • Hollande was one of the loudest proponents of intervention of some sort against Assad’s government in Syria.
  • In January 2013, France used an invitation from the Malian Government and a delayed UN mandate to unilaterally conduct military action in Mali and expedite intervention from other African states.
  • In the past months, France has begun military intervention in the Central African Republic with the stated mission of preventing genocide.
  • Just this week it was reported that France is going to increase the size of military deployments in former colonies, saying that they intend to move to a regional counter-terrorism strategy in West Africa.

France is also encouraging other EU countries, Germany in particular, to contribute to these military ventures. So far Hollande has not had much success in this, though Germany is currently training Malian troops and is in the process of moving its main African troop-transport airbase from Senegal to Mali in order to react to potential threats more quickly.

In either case, French foreign policy since Hollande took office is a far cry from the stereotypical French opposition to any military intervention and subsequent creation of freedom fries.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defense Minister, has given two stated objectives to the most recent strategy developments:

  1. While running the risk of turning into Afghanistan 2.0 (with some of the same problems, but also some different ones), avoid the mistakes of Libya. This requires active and continued involvement of French troops in Africa rather than the distant and temporary military intervention and then letting the nation largely sort out its own problems.
  2. Change the paradigm from counter-terrorism within nations to a regional intervention.

One of the challenges of counter-terrorism is that the opponents are not only non-state entities, but they aspire to be non-state entities, meaning that they do not abide by borders that the counter-terrorist forces are at least supposed to acknowledge. During the French intervention in Mali, the al Qaeda-linked fighters slipped into the desert, often into the surrounding countries. If the French are successful in organizing a regional strategy with the prior cooperation of the nations in the region, they can bypass the issue of national sovereignty–and by having a pre-existing “intervention” in most of the countries, they can establish bases in a larger portion of the Sahel.

It is an ambitious foreign policy agenda in Africa. But in a region that has recently been destabilized by sectarian violence, coups, and multiple different groups of religious extremists, the project has a chance to pay dividends. The German authors suggest that the French people take a immense amount of pride in that their country still plays the role of a global superpower, which causes the collective eye-rolling in other Europeans (especially Germans). This statement may be a bit of a stretch, though Hollande certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered for catapulting France into this position.

The motivations for the main participants are pretty straightforward. France has economic interests throughout its former colonies (including its source of uranium) and so it makes sense to for it to intervene. The United States has little interest in intervention in Africa, but an active interest in curtailing al Qaeda-linked groups in the ongoing war on terror, so it makes sense for the US to support French action however it can. One of the question marks is how the former colonies perceive this strategic shift since it could be seen as a return of European colonialism. However, most of the coverage has indicated that the local populations do not want anything to do with radical Islam and the governments can gain regional stability and thus security from the presence of French troops.

Even though I am skeptical of military intervention as a solution for problems as entrenched as religious extremism and local violence, I am fascinated to watch this French endeavor unfold because it does seem to have been designed with care w/r/t the problems of modern counter-terrorism and be altruistic in as much as it is designed to prevent political instability in the region that threatens to create a situation comparable to Rwanda in 1994.[2] Economic and humanitarian aid will likely be necessary to stabilize the region, while military aid would provide a stop-gap measure since, as has been seen in Mali and elsewhere, the threats to the government and the local population go far beyond religious extremism and include ethnic divisions, multiple religions, corruption, and a-religious separatist groups.[3]

It is absolutely necessary to scrutinize this sort of action and the motivations of the parties involved, but I do believe that “first world” nations have a responsibility to help take care of other parts of the world. The critical question is how those nations help. Military intervention will probably be insufficient and it could well be that this action drags on a decade or more, but this is a much more efficient use of resources than were either of the recent US interventions. As far as this sort of action goes, this new French plan seems to be one of the better ones.

Of course, the really important thing about recent French politics is Hollande visiting his mistress on a scooter.


[1] The article also argues that the French are unwilling to conduct the economic reforms that the Germans have been pushing on the EU countries.
[2] There are economic motivations, too, of course, but this is a situation that there is enough of one that Hollande can try to intervene to prevent the image problem that would come with another African genocide.
[3] Despite a military strategy designed to circumnavigate the national borders, the West is still firmly committed to maintaining the existence of those borders.

Myth of Egyptian Nationalism in the Arab Spring

In some ways the dominant legacy of colonialism is that the nation states formed since the withdrawal of the military and political attention of the colonial powers [1] are usually artificial constructions that more closely align to treaty boundaries between western powers than they do to any sort of natural boundary, be it geographic, ethnic, or otherwise. Despite ideological claims that democracy will create a peaceful and stable world, repressive military regimes in the Middle East actually created a more stable international scene. So the democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring were welcomed as the birth of democracy, particularly when it meant the overthrow of an anti-Western leader like Qaddafi.[2] Where the protests were against more stable (from the American point of view) leaders, the protests were more hesitantly supported.

In early 2011 the Arab Spring reached Egypt and interested peoples watched the demonstrations in Tahrir Square from streaming web cam. The protests ended with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, Muhammed Morsi became the first civilian President of Egypt. Since that time a military coup has deposed Morsi, protests resumed, and violence escalated.

There have been some touching stories from the tragedies in Egypt, including neighbors of different religions helping each other out and the protection of Egyptian museums. I recall reading at the time that these stories and the reluctance of the military to fire upon protesters were indicative of Egypt’s uniqueness in the Arab world. Egypt was said to have a long tradition of “nationalism,” a national ride in Egyptian Heritage, and a geography that nullified many of the problems of tribalism possessed by other Arab states.

Of course this narrative could be exposed merely by pointing out that much of the Sinai is governed by Bedouin tribes and there is little to no government oversight of the peninsula. But that exception not withstanding, one need only point out that the Nile, even with its annual floods curtailed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, is the constant thread between today, Napoleon trying to conquer the Orient, Crusaders facing ignominious defeat, Julius Caesar cavorting with Cleopatra, Alexander laying out the design for a massive city, the construction of the pyramids, and the settlement of a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists from the Levant at the behest of one mythical Joseph. With the Nile as a foundation, the long national unity of Egypt is a seductive notion. The problem is that it is another myth of national unity, a fiction of uniqueness that obscures another country dominated by a military establishment.

The story in Turkey is that the military would overthrow elected officials who threatened the secular republican legacy of Ataturk, although their opposition to Erdogan has been limited. The stated motivations for coups in Egypt are not nearly so Romantic. The Wikipedia page for Tahrir Square says that the protests went on long enough that the military (presumably the establishment, people such as al-Sisi) an opportunity to remove Mubarak. There was a brief experiment with democracy, but for this second round of protests the army has not been as reluctant to use violence. It seems that the Wikipedia page is on to something. Perhaps the reason that Egypt under Mubarak did not more resemble Syria under Assad is that individuals in the Egyptian military wanted to remove Mubarak themselves.


[1] This is not to say a complete removal of imperialism since former colonial powers frequently maintain an economic presence and interest in the former colonies. This economic imperialism can quickly turn into military force, particularly if the internationally recognized government requests assistance, as was the case in Mali last year.
[2] One of my favorite moments in the pilot of “The West Wing” is when Leo McGary calls the editor of the New York Times crossword to yell at him about using Qaddafi as one of the answers. This is one of the ways in which the pilot, in particular, dates itself. For another, there are also multiple jokes and appearances of pagers.

Assorted Links

  1. Promiscuous Reading-An essay in the New Yorker about a reader who had trouble completing books, even when interested in it. He notes that the last book that he read all the way through a work of shorter essays by a German philosopher, and suggests that most people have been training themselves to read texts with shorter attention spans, and thus get distracted even while enjoying the read. The short format, the author says, keeps his attention span while a linear novel does not. Perhaps there is something to it, but I find it odd that the book that achieves this end is one written before the internet. Frankly, I used to be like this, juggling up to eighteen books at once. Now, busier than I have ever been before, I am usually reading two books–one academic, one fun–but when I am interested in a book or have to read it for some reason, I read it to the end.
  2. A Critic’s Manifesto-An essay in the New Yorker that builds on the job of current debate about the role of critics. In one sense the author is correct that critics should have broad experience with the subject matter in order to make informed, substantive judgements, but in another, the author claims some special status for the critics since the true critics (a now deceased category of author) “know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger.” I do agree that crowd-sourcing reviews on a website like Amazon is not the most accurate form of review, but defending an elite and privileged status for critics when it comes to reviews is petty.
  3. Behavior Problems (Not Only Among Students)-An essay in the Chronicle about how the multi-tasking, procrastination, and digital distraction during meetings are not limited to students.
  4. German Shipyards See Future in Wind Power-According to Spiegel, German shipyards that no longer produce ships are turning to the production of parts for offshore wind-farms.
  5. ESPN: Everywhere Sports Profit Network-An article at Businessweek about ESPN and how it is has grown to be a corporation on par with the traditional powerhouses, largely by taking gambles and adapting quickly to new media, including the internet and mobile video. The idea has been to cater to the fans first, even if it means doing so without the direct monetization (ESPN mobile and streaming doesn’t include ad revenue), so that later they will have a foundation from which to bring in more advertising revenue. For example, ESPN podcasts are free and did not used to have corporate sponsorship, but in the past few years, those podcasts have begun receiving advertisements. Likewise, ESPN has managed to monetize live sports across media and multiple channels.
  6. The Rise of Settler TerrorismAn article from Foreign Affairs, shared with me by Will, recounts increasing violence and radical groups in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It concludes that the United States needs to redouble efforts to foster a deal that could end the violence, though much of the article also notes that many of the radical groups are unresponsive to leaders within the settlements or the Israeli government.
  7. B.C. minister warns against sex recruiters on campus-From Canada, where, evidently, strip clubs have been recruiting college students as dancers in return for money for tuition. The schools were warned that the clubs might try to put up booths at post-secondary school job fairs.
  8. The New Libya Searches for Justice-An article in Spiegel about Libya now, as trials for government officials, collaborators, and officers are about to begin. In particular, the article examines what is happening with guards (and murderers) and prisoners who took part in a prison riot and the bloody suppression and massacre in 1996.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?