"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 27, 2012

US Foreign Policy–Failure in Mali


Mali in the early 2000's was one country in Africa most experienced travelers wanted to visit. It was safe (a very important consideration in a period which was characterized by increasing lawlessness throughout the continent), the brand of Islam practiced is moderate (although most Malians are not Sufis, many of their religious practices reflect the mysticism of Sufism), the music is perhaps the most unique, intriguing, and influential of all Africa (some scholars have made a Blues-Mali link), and the political situation was stable (none of the snap strikes common in Bangladesh, for example, that totally disrupted economic productivity).  The food was excellent, both the traditional Malian dishes (the poulet yassa is superb) and French (Nile Perch from the Niger a la crème with capers is worth a detour gastronomique), and the people delightful (a far cry from the aggressive Nigerians and Wolof of Senegal).  Mali was a new but increasingly stable political economy.

It was no surprise that Mali was the favored child of the US State Department.  Here democracy could grow and be an example of a country which did things right, followed American principles, and had a chance to be the bulwark against the anti-democratic forces of al-Qaeda increasingly present in the vast northern desert.  Mali would vindicate State Department/USAID programs in Africa, many if not most of which had little or no impact and served to prop up tin pot dictators.  The Secretary of State could report back to a restive Congress that things were going well, the Department’s missions were succeeding, and there were many success stories that could be reported back to African-American lobbyists.

In 2012, however, events in Mali exposed the total illusion of these assumptions.  As Bruce Whitehouse reports in the most recent London Review of Books http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n16/bruce-whitehouse/what-went-wrong-in-mali:
Mali lost that distinction [democratic progress noteworthy in a region which was making none] on the afternoon of 21 March, when troops in Kati, just outside the capital city of Bamako, launched a mutiny. Rank-and-file soldiers involved in a campaign against the resurgent Tuareg rebels didn’t trust their commanders and accused officials in Bamako of withholding equipment and support. Mutineers captured the state television station and stormed the presidential palace. Touré vanished into the night with a few bodyguards, just weeks before the end of his second and final term.
All Western donor nations denounced the coup and suspended foreign assistance.  Hilary Clinton, anticipating the critics who would legitimately shout ‘failure’, made some self-serving political feints.
The standard explanation blamed the coup on the Malian military’s disaffection after a string of defeats at the hands of a motley alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists. The rebels had benefited from an influx of fighters and arms from Libya in the wake of Gaddafi’s downfall. Earlier this month Hillary Clinton claimed that ‘Mali was, by most indicators, on the right path until a cadre of soldiers seized power.’ But why was it so easy for a few dozen sergeants and junior officers to topple the government? Why didn’t more Malians stand up in defense of the institutions put in place after 1991?
It turns out that many of the democratic reforms and institutions were shams and used by canny politicians to keep the sluice gates of foreign assistance flowing.
‘A fish rots from the head,’ Malians say. To keep the aid money flowing, Touré maintained a veneer of progress. His government at first boosted the number of children enrolled at school, which pleased donors, but never invested adequately in the country’s dilapidated education system. Only 12 per cent of students passed the high school leaving exams this year, the lowest rate ever recorded. Touré purchased a temporary peace in the north but never made good on promises to reduce the acute poverty there. He accepted millions of dollars of US military aid, which was supposed to be used to drive out al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but he never actually went after the group’s encampments. The military itself was racked by nepotism, and officers often skimmed off their soldiers’ ammunition and pay.
The State Department looked, but saw only what it wanted to see.  The signs of this political corruption were evident everywhere:
The cracks in Mali’s democracy were present before the latest Tuareg rebellion. The 1992 constitution, the free press and regular elections obscured long-standing anti-democratic practices. Western governments, glad to see the formal trappings of democracy anywhere in the region, tolerated these abuses. Touré’s presidency had begun under a cloud. Although international observers noted irregularities during the 2002 election, they declared it free and fair. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe Touré won only because the scales were tipped in his favor: the constitutional court annulled half a million votes, roughly a quarter of the ballots cast in the first round. Konaré, the incumbent, had chosen Touré as his successor and had acted to ensure his victory. Touré has been accused of orchestrating an ‘electoral hold-up’ for his 2007 re-election. Turnout for Mali’s elections throughout the decade was the lowest in West Africa. Recently Laurent Bigot, a French foreign ministry official, succinctly described Mali as a ‘sham democracy’.
Touré’s ‘rule by consensus’ became a euphemism for the suppression of political debate and a trend towards absolutism. Checks and balances existed only on paper. Journalists were afraid to challenge the president’s agenda, especially after five of their colleagues were arrested in 2007 for writing about a teacher in Bamako who got his students to comment on a short story about a girl made pregnant thanks to the ‘carnal escapades’ of an African head of state.
The fraud did not stop at these political shenanigans.  Many of the millions of dollars given to Mali by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria were embezzled, and Toure’s  Health Minister is awaiting trial. It gets worse:
On the outskirts of Bamako, residents saw their property seized by members of the president’s inner circle, and were powerless to seek redress through the courts. Few Malians felt protected by the police, who were busy extorting bribes from motorists. Judges sold favorable verdicts to the highest bidders. There was the revival of a practice known as Article 320, first seen in the lawless days after Moussa Traoré’s fall: accused thieves were doused with petrol and set alight.
The real reason for American support to Mali was to fully engage it against the growing threat of al-Qaeda in the Sahara; and this, never a sure thing, completely unraveled after the coup:
In the north, the alliance between Tuareg separatists and the Islamists has unraveled, with the Islamist militias throwing the separatists out of the towns they had controlled. The Islamists, widely believed to have links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as well as to kidnapping and narcotics rings, have consolidated their hold in the north, an area the size of Texas, and drawn fighters from across Africa to join them. They have also recruited local youths, some as young as 14.
The problem with foreign assistance is that it is never meant to accomplish its stated aims – economic development, democracy, political stability – but its hidden agendas.  In the case of Mali it is to act as a US surrogate in the fight against Islamic militancy.  In Angola and Nigeria it is to secure a steady supply of oil.  In Pakistan it is to secure the country as a reliable ally in the war against the Taliban.  In Haiti and Peru it is to stop the lucrative drug trade.  In earlier days it was to protect the American business interests in Chile, to stop the infiltration of Communism in Brazil and Argentina.  The list goes on.

While these goals may be understandable it is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a continual erosion of American credibility to try to achieve them indirectly.  In Mali we have supported yet another corrupt regime for the sake of consolidating their political fealty through ‘development’ programs.  Why not conclude a military alliance with the Malian regime, train, equip, and supervise their troops in armed action against al-Qaeda in the Sahara?  That’s what we really want. 

Or cut deals with the Angolan regime like the Chinese – investment for oil, no questions asked; or military support for government troops in the Nigerian delta? Or ditch the billions in ‘development’ money for Pakistan which goes into corrupt pockets anyway, and just give them pay-off bribe money to do what we say?

The US, however, is not supposed to be engaged in foreign military adventurism (Iraq excepted); and we are forbidden to directly pay off foreign dictators or corrupt political regimes.

This is why American foreign policy has never worked.  We are too sanctimonious to act like the Chinese whose ‘no questions asked’ policy is gaining them resources, friends, and regional influence.  We are too scrambled in our military policy; too convinced of our democratic exceptionalism to even consider Kissinger’s realpolitik approach to foreign affairs; and too wedded to the idea that ‘development’ can be accomplished at the same time as political goals.

Hillary Clinton is at least indirectly responsible for the foreign policy failures in Africa.  The Obama Administration's desire to create African success stories obviated any rational, logical assessment of the geo-political situation in Mali and most other countries on the continent.  The US long before Obama and Hillary Clinton were backers of the worst African dictators, contributed to their longevity but ultimate national instability, and gained us little in the way of guaranteed resources or political support.  Yet Mrs. Clinton cannot be let off the hook when she claims that she is the ideal person to conduct American foreign policy.  She has shown very little in the way of success.

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