Planning for muddle
There are crises that no one sees coming, but Mali was not one of these
This is not a theoretical classification to be found in manuals of international relations; but in international politics you can distinguish between two kinds of crisis:
Type 1: those which take you by surprise. Whether the surprise is genuine or the result of myopia matters little. Retrospectively, we can explain the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 9-11 attacks, or the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia; but they were not sufficiently easy to see coming, at least not to those responsible for making decisions at the top. Preparing for an unknown threat is difficult, and obviously in a crisis you improvise and muddle your measures, not having the time to rehearse and evaluate them. So you draw on the existing repertory, though you know, or suspect, it is inadequate.
The second kind, or Type 2, are the ones that you can see coming. To predict them you don't need any great vision, but something that we may in pompous mood call inference, but is only common sense. This is the case of the north of Mali. For months now a situation has been tolerated in which a number of armed groups have been acting with impunity, gathering military forces and cementing alliances to control and exploit all the illegal commerce that goes on (arms, drugs, immigrants) in the region. And when the international community finally reacted, it has done it so slowly and weakly as to offer an incentive for these groups to expand their profits and territory. Why wait for governments to put together an army to defeat us, they must have thought, if we can now take the chance to break the army of Mali?
It is hard to understand how the EU has passively watched the consolidation of a terrorist fiefdom in the Sahel
To the embarrassment of the EU, this is not a Type 1 crisis where it might claim surprise or ignorance. Since 2008, the EU has been keeping a close watch on the Sahel, including the preparation of reports: Options Paper 750/09 and Joint Paper 1436/10; missions to Niger, Mauritania and Mali to identify problems and solutions; a joint communiqué of the Council and the Commission, and finally a Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, approved by the EU's Foreign Affairs Council in 2012.
This strategy report, with a 650-million-euro budget, opens with a map in which much of the north of Mali is colored bright red as a territory "under direct control" of Al Qaeda, and a fringe extending from Mauritania to Niger "under indirect control" of the same. However, the strategy does not call for combat against Al Qaeda as more than a secondary objective, in the understanding that in the long run a measure of economic and social development, and support for the states of the region, will cause the phenomenon to dissolve.
It is obvious that the European governments, and particularly the European External Action Service, directed by Catherine Ashton, are victims of a strategic ingenuity of the first order. With Al Qaeda's record of actions in Europe, it is hard to understand how the EU has passively watched the consolidation of a terrorist fiefdom in the Sahel; while it now delegates the solution to France, as if other Europeans were not concerned.
This division of labor between Brussels and the national states, in which the former plays the "good cop" concerned with development, and the national states play "bad cop" with military missions, is unfair, ineffective and counterproductive. The European Union has a common security policy, and authority to use it. It seems, however, that Europe's leadership, with Ashton at the head but followed by a majority of foreign ministers, does not believe in it sufficiently to give the bloc's international reach any real content. This insistence on soft power results in the soft Europe that has become embarrassingly apparent in recent weeks. The use of so many pages of planning, in preparation for this improvised muddle, ought to result in some political action.