Just days ago, I folded myself into a US embassy vehicle in Bamako, Mali, fresh off the plane from Timbuktu, the historic center of Islamic learning and trans-Saharan trade in the north of the country. Looking out the car window, I saw that thousands of cheering Malians were lining the streets of this city, which had been cleared for VIP travel. I admit, I was stunned by this outpouring of enthusiasm for the American ambassador and an American senator.
Then I realized that they weren't there for us. They were waiting to cheer the motorcade of Iranian President Mohamad Khatami, whose plane had just landed at the airport.
Bamako's reception for the Iranian president should be a wake-up call for US policymakers. We need to do much more to reach out to struggling countries like Mali. If we don't, other influences may step in to fill the void.
Driving into Bamako, I had been mulling over the meetings I'd had in Timbuktu with imams and local officials to hear their views of the terrorist threat that has emerged in their region, to listen to their concerns about US policies, and to find out how we can work together. The Malians I met, like the Algerians and Nigerians and Kenyans I have met, do not hate the US, although many have grave concerns about some of our policies. Malians I spoke with had concerns about everything from the invasion of Iraq to the effect of US trade policies on Mali's textile industry. They are happy to discuss their views on issues of terrorism. But they're even more interested in talking about their own priority: the fight against poverty, the struggle for a reason to hope that life for their children will be better than life is today.