It seems dreadfully impolite to call attention to the foibles and errors of one’s media colleagues, especially if one grew up surrounded by newspapermen, the kind who wore hats and ties, which they loosened while pretending to work, drank too much, and spoke several languages well. They were professionals. It is distasteful as speaking ill of one’s fellow Republicans, another habit that has creeped into our culture of late and which is difficult for men of a certain age and generation to get used to. This is not to say that professional self-criticism, properly understood, should not be a proper function of journalism. It most certainly is, at least as practiced with exemplary professionalism by A. J. Liebling in his time, or E.J. Epstein in his, or Brent Bozell and W. Buckley in theirs. (Mr. Bozell even today, as also, and with admirable grit and determination and persistence in these pages Mr. Lord, but one doubts they are talking about journalists when they underscore the horrors to which certain televised sickos descend.)
I apologize, could not resist, but this uncharacteristically long preface is a necessary reaction to an article in the New York Times, our alleged national paper of record, on the coup that overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali this week. In a comparatively long piece, the Times rehashes the old news that armaments left over from last year’s Libyan civil war found their way to Mali, carried by Tuareg fighters abandoning their service in the army of Moammar Gaddafi. In this it fails to give any serious perspective on the Tuareg question, of which the Libyan angle is an important component to be sure but meaningless without historical and political context. That said, it is correct that, placing themselves at the helm of the latest version of the Tuareg movement — which dates to the early ’60s but which the paper of record seems unaware of — the seasoned fighters from Libya, with their heavy arsenals, proceeded to humiliate the Mali Defense Force, notwithstanding aid and advice from the U.S. (and France), a fact mentioned as an afterthought at the end of the Times article.
One just wants to throw up one’s hands when confronted by such shabby work. What sort of support is Mali getting from us? How extensive is it, if the whole beef of the putschists is that they are woefully underequipped in the face of a rebellion powered by an arsenal brought home from Libya? Indeed, President Touré and others in Mali complained that the French government, unable to beat Gaddafi even with our help (and that of our gallant British allies), in effect bribed the Tripolitan pirate’s Tuareg troops by telling them they could go home with whatever they could lift, no one would strafe them on the way. Could the French really be capable of such cynicism? Well, could the Times at least ask? And how much U.S. aid money is likely to be lost (answer: about half a billion if you count the Millennium Challenge grant; U.S. legislation supports the African Union in condemning coups against democratic regimes and by forbidding aid to the coup-ers. No need to look for this in the Times piece.)
However, the trouble in Mali is unlikely to go away, so there will be occasion to get some degree of accuracy of context and information to American readers in the days and weeks ahead. For the moment, what we know is that some junior officers in a garrison near Bamako, the capital, led their men against the presidential palace on Tuesday night, after seizing the radio-TV building (following the instructions in the coup-manual textbooks to get control of information even as you decapitate, literally or metaphorically, the state as fast as possible).
It remains unclear, at least from Washington, whether the head in question is gone for good (metaphorically or otherwise) or, as rumors had it last night, is holed up in the U.S. Embassy (UPDATE: which the State Department denies) and is negotiating an arrangement with Captain Amadou Sagono and the other putschists — or is under arrest. A leading Malian political figure, Ibrahim Babacar Keita, without mentioning the president, called for the immediate release of detained public officials and for the soldiers to return to their barracks. The African Union suspended Mali’s membership.
There are bitter ironies in the downfall of President ATT, as he is known, and much sorrow. He is a decent man, popular, but it is not entirely unfair of the young soldiers to call him incompetent, not that they, so far, have much to brag about, as they evidently went on looting sprees that did nothing to reassure anyone that they are only doing their duty, as they claim, to “restore national unity and preserver territorial integrity,” the last a reference to the capture of key towns in the northern third of Mali by the Tuareg rebels, with or without — the point remains in dispute — the aid of salafist fighters of AQIM and Ancar Dine (“sons of Islam” or “fighters for Islam,” but that is why we need better linguists in the news trade).
President Touré is himself a coup instigator, and he once noted that if civilians do their job poorly, they should expect trouble from soldiers. To be sure, the coup he led 20 years ago was against a sanguinary tyrant, Moussa Traoré, and whatever eventually comes out about incompetence, corruption, and the rest — and who are we to talk about corruption and incompetence, for are these not characteristics of democratic regimes in all times and places, the necessary ill accompanying the blessings of freedom? — the record will show that following the overthrow of Traoré, ATT let others serve and elaborate a constitution and civil institutions, running for president only in the third election following the establishment of Mali’s Third Republic.
Our vast democracy industry, in and out of government, failed for 20 years to examine carefully the quite plain weaknesses in Mali’s experiment with freedom. There could be no harm in doing so: there is nothing unusual or even necessarily disgraceful in a young democratic regime, or for that matter an old one, falling short of its professed standards. The reality is probably that the democracy industry is exactly that, an industry, not a vocation or a calling or a mission. They need to show their activities — would it be too much of a stretch to call it work? — have consequences. To the busybodies at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights and their contractual subalterns at places like Freedom House or the National Endowment for Democracy, Mali offered proof that our clamoring for political nation-building registers success, sometimes. The money, the time, the resources, the noise — cf. the Times — generated by this Washington boondoggle could only humiliate Malian patriots, even as it deflected those in charge of our foreign affairs from the harsher realities of this nice little (population-wise) country filled with the sights of beautiful women and the sounds of some of the best music in West Africa, among many other qualities.
From a U.S. policy perspective, surely the key question in Mali for at least 15 years has been how to balance our security interests, which involve containing, if not crushing, the terrorist threat in the Sahel with its Saharan sanctuaries, while promoting some notion — why should it be ours, developed over Anglo-American centuries, rather than the consensual, talk-and-agree-to-disagree traditions of governance favored, indeed embodied, by Amadou Toumani Touré — of political and economic reform. Well, the question is staring us in the face right now.
(Roger Kaplan reports from Washington, following a trip to Mali last month.)