Foreign policy over the horizon
President Barack Obama spoke few words in his inaugural address about all the crises around the world that demand American action. A passing reference to unwinding the war in Afghanistan. Nothing about pressing Pakistan to clean out its terror havens. Nothing about Iran’s approaching nuclear breakout.
Those are all known threats, of course. What Obama couldn’t know — what no one knows — is the next looming terror threat. The crisis that will hijack the administration’s carefully parsed foreign policy plans and goals. The grave challenge that will call for national resilience and resolve.
Even as Obama spoke in Washington, grim news came from the latest terror front to break into American consciousness: Mali and Algeria in North Africa. Thirty-seven hostages, including three Americans, were killed when Algerian military forces stormed a gas field complex in the Sahara.
That attack supposedly was launched in response to the French military operation against al-Qaida insurgents in nearby Mali, designed to stop Islamic militants from overrunning the country and establishing a terror haven, Afghanistan style.
Two weeks ago, neither country registered on most Americans’ radar as terrorist hot spots. Now they do. The threat in North Africa demands a muscular American strategy.
What we know, from 9/11 and more than a decade of terror attacks around the globe: Any terror sanctuary can threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies. Al-Qaida-linked jihadists cannot be ignored. Osama bin Laden is dead, but these attacks demonstrate again that al-Qaida is very much alive in scattered cells around the world.
Officials in Algeria described “a well-organized, heavily armed group of militants who collected advance intelligence on the sprawling natural-gas complex, including its layout and foreign workforce,” The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. “The attackers commanded an arsenal of missiles, explosives and guns that … appeared to have been pilfered from Libyan stockpiles.”
That siege was sparked by a French incursion into another developing al-Qaida haven, Mali. Credit the French for sending troops, not merely voting for another feckless Security Council resolution — to stop al-Qaida terrorists from overrunning the entire country. The French have halted that advance and recaptured two important central Malian towns.
The American response so far? Underwhelming. France asked U.S. officials for logistical and other support in Mali. American officials promised help but dithered for days about the legal intricacies of providing surveillance planes as well as tankers that would be used to refuel French fighters in flight. The U.S. should provide the requested help. A quick and decisive response now is the best way to ensure that American soldiers won’t eventually be needed.
Over the last two weeks, “the ground has completely shifted,” Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University, told The New York Times. It could shift again, in a blink.
In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush spoke of the relative calm of the post-Cold War 1990s: “After the shipwreck of communism, came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical — and then there came a day of fire.”
Some called that pre-9/11 decade a “holiday from history,” when America could claim its spoils as the world’s only superpower and defer bold action to keep developing threats at bay.
In a recent Foreign Policy article, “Over the Horizon,” author Martin Indyk highlighted “five unlikely but extremely destabilizing global crises” that Washington should prepare for. Those include a confrontation with North Korea and a security collapse after Western troops leave Afghanistan in 2014. He calls these “black swan” events. Albeit unlikely, these “could also define Obama’s second term, diverting the president from his intended foreign-policy agenda,” Indyk wrote.
Note: Neither Mali or Algeria made the list. No one knows where and when the next crisis will erupt. The only certainty: America can never take a holiday from history.