PARIS -- Socialist French President Francois Hollande is in the pilot's seat in the world's latest military incursion. We're not used to seeing the French lead the way into battle, but it's becoming increasingly frequent.
Some 63 percent of the French support Hollande's decision to take military action in Mali, according to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion. So why have the French suddenly developed such an itchy trigger finger?
Under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France led the world into Libya. At the time, French polls showed that the greatest support for the military intervention at its outset came from left-leaning voters, because it was well-framed within the country and abroad as a humanitarian effort. Was there an economic aspect to the Libyan incursion? Of course. In a document leaked to the French newspaper Libération, Libya's National Transitional Council pledged 35 percent of Libyan oil to France (up from 17 prevent pre-incursion) in exchange for full French support. And French companies figured to jump to the front of the line for private rebuilding and security contracts in Libya.
Would such gains have been worth pursuing in the absence of the strong humanitarian impetus that resonated so well with the French? Probably not. More likely, France would have sat out. Or perhaps it would have begun using drones for bombing rather than just for surveillance, as the Obama administration has done when it wants to conduct military operations without worrying about the body-bag sensitivity that comes with boots on the ground. But one of the downsides of shunning the traditional warfare arsenal of planes, bombs and troops, in favor of someone dropping bombs from behind a joystick at a cushy desk, is that you're less visible and therefore less likely to have optics favor you in the aftermath when it's time to divvy up the spoils.
Mali was a no-brainer for France, particularly given the blessing of Mali President Dioncounda Traore, the United Nations Security Council and other West African nations. Hollande framed it as a humanitarian effort to beat back "terrorist elements" known for their "brutality and fanaticism," and "for the security of the Malian population, and of (France's 6,000 expats in Mali)."
Complicating the mess in Mali are the "rent-a-rebel" Tuaregs who traveled to fight for Gadhafi in Libya, and have proven themselves willing to get into bed with anyone if it serves their desires. Having waged war against Malian troops and co-opted hardcore Islamists, they're now offering to help the French fight "other terror groups" to defend Mali. (Nice try.)
Not only does Hollande have the overwhelming support of his country for the war, but that support is strongest among left-leaning voters at 77 percent -- compared with 62 percent support from the right.
A more interesting narrative can be found on the French Foreign Affairs Ministry's website: "Mali's exports to France (focused on gold, cotton and cattle) do not exceed 10 million (euros)/year on average for the last five years and were down in 2010 (5.8 million euros). ... Today, France is no longer the number one foreign investor in Mali, as a result of higher investments from South Africa (mining and agribusiness), Morocco (banks and telecom), and Libya (hotels and an agricultural project in the north of the 'Office du Niger' zone)."
It looks like there's a primo opportunity for France to move up that list.
France's military intervention in Mali isn't just a blow against terrorism. France is also jockeying for position for future opportunities. Hollande hasn't been talking about the economic benefits of a successful military intervention, but he doesn't need to. As with Libya, the humanitarian optics are overwhelming enough.
This is where Obama can learn a lesson for his administration's efforts in places such as Syria, where he's clearly struggling to get a foothold.
Is Hollande sending French intelligence into Mali's northern region to train, fund and leverage al-Qaeda-linked terrorist rebels to fight the oppressors? Is he hiding behind the locals while trying to convince the leaders of surrounding nations that France isn't really present in the region? Is he trying to inorganically stoke the flames of humanitarian conflict to gain worldwide sympathy for his cause?
The answer to all of these questions is clearly "no." The support Hollande has generated is proof that with proper strategizing, framing and planning, one really doesn't need to lie and manipulate to go to war.