Although it is a real city north of the Niger River on edge of the Sahara Desert in the West African country of Mali, Timbuktu has long served as a metaphor for an exotic, mysterious, and distant land. To travel from “here to Timbuktu” suggests a long, arduous, and adventurous journey to a place far away.
Timbuktu has both economic and religious significance. By the 14th century, it was a flourishing center for the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade. The city was a center of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Three of western Africa’s oldest mosques were built there. Thousands of manuscripts have been collected in Timbuktu over the course of many centuries. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
France is the one European country that has always been connected with the region. A 10,000 franc prize was offered by a French society in 1824 to the first non-Muslim to go to Timbuktu and return with information about it. A Frenchman who disguised himself as a Muslim claimed the prize in 1828. France took control of Mali in the 1890s. And although the Independent Republic of Mali was formed on September 22, 1960, French is still the country’s official language. After its independence, Mail was ruled by a series of corrupt and dictatorial regimes until a constitution was adopted and a democratic, multi-party presidential election was held in 1992.
More recently, however, a rebellion began in northern Mali in January 2012 led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Timbuktu is in Azawad). A military coup in March 2012 ousted Mali’s president and suspended the constitution. In April 2012, Timbuktu was captured, sharia law was implemented, and the independence of Azawad was declared. In October 2012, the United Nations Security Council passed a French resolution approving an African-led force to assist Mali in combating rebel forces. French soldiers intervened in January 2013 and, with Malian soldiers, reclaimed Timbuktu with little resistance. The French president and Mali’s interim president then made a public appearance in Timbuktu. In February 2013, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad renounced its claim of independence and began helping French and African Union forces. Fighting continues between Islamic militants and the French-backed Mali government forces.
U.S. Marines may have gone to the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli, they may have fought in every clime and place, they may have taken a gun in the snow of far-off northern lands and sunny tropic scenes, but now they have a chance to go to Timbuktu.
In a letter late last month to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Barack Obama informed them that he had deployed U.S. troops to Niger to conduct intelligence collection and sharing with French forces:
On February 20, 2013, the last elements of a deployment of approximately 40 additional U.S. military personnel entered Niger with the consent of the Government of Niger. This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region. The total number of U.S. military personnel deployed to Niger is approximately 100. The recently deployed forces have deployed with weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security.
I directed this deployment of U.S. forces in furtherance of U.S. national security interests, and pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.
I am providing this report as part of my efforts to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution (Public Law 93-148). I appreciate the support of the Congress in this action.
Niger, which signed a status of forces agreement with the United States last month that governs the presence of American troops in the country, borders on Mail. The president of Niger has voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali.
Defense Department officials told NBC News that “a first wave will include two Raptor surveillance drones and 250 to 300 military personnel, including remote pilots and security and maintenance crews.” The Pentagon has already acknowledged that the United States has transported French soldiers, cargo, and military equipment into Mali and refueled French fighter jets there. A spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command (which is headquartered in, of all places, Stuttgart, Germany) said in an e-mail message, “Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations.” Although the United States already has surveillance aircraft stationed at several places around Africa, the only permanent U.S. military base on the continent is located in Djibouti, which is more than 3,000 miles from Mali.
There are four glaring problems with this latest escapade of the U.S. military.
One, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the president to initiate the deployment of U.S. forces. There is no such thing as presidential war power. The Founding Fathers did not entrust to one man the power to take the nation to war. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants to Congress the power to “declare war,” “raise and support armies,” “provide and maintain a navy,” “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces,” “provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions,” and “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia.” Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution makes the president the “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States.” Obama has things backwards, just like his predecessors:
George H.W. Bush: “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in Congress to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.”
George W. Bush: “As your president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.”
The fact that Congress has for many years consistently gone along with the president’s usurpation of power makes it neither right nor constitutional.
Two, have Americans forgotten what happened the last time the United States came to the aid of the French military? In a word: Vietnam. France began meddling in Vietnam as far back as the late 1850s. Before 1900, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos were forcibly made into the French colony of French Indochina. Naturally, a nationalist movement for independence soon developed. When Vietnam was occupied by Japan during World War II, the League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh — with the help of the United States — fought a guerrilla war against both the Japanese and Vietnam’s French administrators. Independence was proclaimed after World War II, but the United States supported the French reconquest of Indochina. After the war, the Vietnamese began a guerrilla war against French colonial rule. But instead of supporting an independent Vietnam, or at least not taking sides, the United States intervened in behalf of the French with funding and weapons, but to no avail. In 1954, after a military defeat, France granted Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam their independence. But that didn’t end American intervention in Vietnam; it was only the beginning. When civil war erupted in Vietnam after a failed attempt at unification in 1956, the United States sent military “advisors,” then troops, and then more troops. More than 3 million were deployed during the course of the war. That does not mean that U.S. intervention in Mali will turn into another Vietnam, but it does mean that there are always unforeseen consequences of U.S. military interventions. The war in Iraq was supposed to be a cakewalk, not last longer than five months, and cost “only” about $50 billion, with Iraq’s vast oil reserves helping to defray the costs.
Three, sending U.S. troops thousands of miles from American soil, to conduct intelligence collection, and to assist another country in a military escapade is a perversion of the use of the military. It is beyond dispute that the purpose of any country’s having a military is to defend its borders, skies, and shores from aggression by other countries. But since World War II, the U.S. military has been exclusively used by the president for purposes other than the actual defense of the country. U.S. soldiers who go to Niger, Mali, or Timbuktu, like those who went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and all the other countries where the U.S. military had no business going, go as part of the president’s personal attack force. The actions of the U.S. military should extend no further than defending the United States, securing its borders, guarding its shores, patrolling its coasts, and enforcing a no-fly zone over its skies. To do otherwise is to pervert the purpose of the military. It is not the purpose of the U.S. military to defend other countries, secure their borders, guard their shores, patrol their coasts, or enforce no-fly zones over their skies. And it is certainly not the proper use of the military to attack, invade, or occupy foreign countries. But that’s not all. The U.S. military should never be used for disaster relief, humanitarian aid, nation building, training foreign armies, assisting foreign armies, establishing democracy, enforcing UN resolutions, regime change, containing communism, fighting the drug war, policing the world, or righting all the wrongs that exist in foreign societies.
And four, talking about national security interests and signing status of forces agreements do not change the fact that U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally, perpetually, and hopelessly interventionist. The United States would never tolerate another country’s engaging in an American-style foreign policy. Most Americans probably don’t realize that the United States already has troops in many countries in North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia) and sub-Saharan Africa (Angola, Botswana, Burkina, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe) long before this latest deployment of more troops to Niger. There are no soldiers from any of these countries, or any other country, stationed in the United States. And although there are at least 1,000 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, there are no foreign military bases in the United States.
Timbuktu is not out of reach of U.S. troops. And a future U.S. military installation in Timbuktu is not out of the question.