Until about a week ago, I couldn’t find Mali on a map—except that I knew to look in Africa. I knew that it was a poor nation. But I didn’t even know that it was previously known as French West Africa. I should have known more, but I just didn’t. We Americans are not very good at knowing stuff about Africa. At least this American isn’t. And I’m not proud of that fact.
Now, suddenly, I’m learning that France is using fighter jets against a radical Islamic faction in Mali, and I know nothing about that, either. And as the news trickles out—particularly the news that the U.S. has been helping France with logistics, and that they’re asking for even more help—I’m starting to worry. Isn’t this how things started in Vietnam, when the U.S. got gradually more and more involved after a French military debacle in its former colony? Is there a new “domino theory” at work? Are we—and by “we” I mean U.S. foreign-policy decision-makers—operating on the premise that radical Islam, like communism, will spread from one country to another? [I’m old enough to remember newsreels that showed a scary red communist blob oozing across eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.] In this view of the world, is Al Qaida the new Viet Cong? And, by the way, were the Cold War theories on which we based our military actions ever borne out in fact?
I listened to President Obama’s second inaugural speech and felt good when I heard him say that America doesn’t need to be in a perpetual state of war. I hope he can stick to that conviction.
I suspect that I’m at the first stage of this news story—the one where I have very little information on which to form an opinion. I intend to upgrade that status. Right now, though, all I have are questions. But at this stage, questions seem more important than answers—especially at the decision-making level. I just hope that events don’t overtake the president so quickly that he doesn’t have a chance to ask the questions that seem not to have been asked when the U.S. entangled itself in previous conflicts.
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.