In 2005, as a US senator from Wisconsin and ranking member of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I visited Mali and wrote about my visit in this publication. At the time, I wrote that, “if we want a less threatening future, we Americans need to get in the game, increase our diplomatic presence, listen to the people on the ground, and combine widespread, quick-impact development projects with long-term investments in fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law.”
The Obama administration has certainly done a better job of reaching out to this region, and has a much better appreciation of the transnational nature of the terrorist threat, particularly in Africa. Regrettably, Washington is still struggling to free itself from the flawed policies that continue to undermine a more flexible and informed approach in our fight against that terrorist threat. The US should be even more engaged in Africa than we are now.
Given the months-long struggle against Al Qaeda-allied fighters in Mali and the tragic hostage situation in nearby Algeria, the need to “get in the game” is even truer today. We as Americans must become conversant with and respectful of the geography, the languages, the customs, and cultures of far-away places. We must not be taken by surprise again, as we were on 9/11.
The region of northern Africa has a rich past and has much to teach about the history of the world. Reports of militants in Timbuktu torching 12th century manuscripts and destroying ancient sites, such as the tomb of a saint from the year 955, were particularly disheartening for me, having had the opportunity to see similar documents in person during my earlier visit.