COLUMBUS, Ohio — “When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer; our security at home is threatened.”
So declared Hillary Clinton in her final appearance as secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Clinton was referring to the Middle East and the north of Africa, where a chain reaction of events has brought violence to the region.
She was wrong. Our intervention in Libya brought an attack on a consulate we set up in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. officials.
That same intervention unleashed military elements of the Tuareg ethnic group — which once had served Col. Moammar Gadhafi — to return to their home area in northern Mali to fight for independence from Mali. The Tuareg nationalists were shoved aside by Islamists, leading to the current French-led military intervention in northern Mali.
Clinton was not challenged on her point. Extremism, however, may be fed by our military presence in that part of the world. Our interests may suffer precisely because of our presence.
The Islamists in Mali are part of what is called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. In Arabic, Maghreb means “west,” so it is the group operating in the Western reaches of Islamic-populated countries in the north of Africa.
From Mali, these Islamists infiltrated a few weeks ago into Algeria, where they took over an oil facility, killing workers there. Three Americans are among the dead at the oil base.
The Obama administration is acting on Clinton’s view, though with some caution. It is aiding the French on communications and logistics in Mali, but is not jumping into a Mali intervention with both feet. It is beefing up our military’s Europe-based Africa command, which has responsibility for anything we might decide to do in Africa.
Tellingly, we just made an arrangement with Niger, which abuts Mali, to operate pilotless drone aircraft from Niger territory.
Drones are used for surveillance but can also fire missiles to kill individuals on the ground. But our drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan generate anger against the United States.
Reports abound of civilians killed when missiles are fired from drones. Drone aircraft hover for hours at a time over certain areas in Pakistan, awaiting a human target. The populations below, hearing the whirr, live in constant fear.
The United Nations has just decided to investigate the legality of our drone attacks. If we begin using them in North Africa, we may find new populations aligned against us.
While the Obama administration finds these missile strikes effective, there is no way to know the long-term consequences. Even if we reap a short-term military gain, the practice may come back to haunt us.
The Obama administration would do well to learn the lessons of recent history. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is the descendant of the mujahedeen — the guerrilla fighters who operated in Afghanistan, starting in 1979.
The Afghani mujahedeen were largely our creation. We funded them to oppose a pro-Soviet government then in power in Afghanistan. We did make life difficult for the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan, but after the mujahedeen evicted the pro-Soviet government, they turned their guns on us.
It is descendants of the mujahedeen who now plant roadside bombs to drive us out of Afghanistan. Even as we draw down forces there, it is hard to demonstrate that our presence there improves our security.
Our financing gave birth to the groups all over the region that use the name al-Qaida. Our longtime backing of Israel over the Palestinians provided these militants a rallying point. Our invasion of Iraq fueled the fire.
A major military presence in the north of Africa, if that is what the Obama administration envisages, may bring us more blowback.
John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Readers may write to him at Moritz College Law, 55 West 12th Street, Columbus, Ohio 43210.