France’s military intervention in Mali provides Washington yet again an opportunity to show both solidarity and restraint with some of its closest, most important allies.

 The government of President Francois Hollande clearly believes France has vital interests at stake–hence the hurried deployment of advanced combat aircraft, including Rafale fighters and Tiger attack helicopters, and hundreds of soldiers over the last several days to the former French colony. The United States has interests in the region as well. For years, Washington has attempted to promote stability and security in Mali and across the Sahel–the vast swath of land from Senegal and Mauritania in the West to Chad and Sudan in the East–through diplomacy but also through military training and education programs. These have included the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, designed to strengthen the ability of African military forces to participate in multinational peace support operations, the so-called Section 1206 program, designed to provide training and equipment to partner state security forces in order to build capability, and multinational exercises run by USUS special operations forces, designed to strengthen the capacity of partner militaries to plan for and conduct military operations.  

Mali’s descent into civil strife–as a result of a military coup in March 2012–put most of these efforts on pause. Nonetheless, the concerns that prompted Washington to initiate them in the first place–the potential for terrorist organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda to exploit ungoverned or under-governed territory–remains, regardless of who’s in charge in Bamako. 

Despite this, American interests in Mali’s current crisis do not yet rise to a level that would compel the deployment of US forces on the ground in Mali, especially during this era of austerity and downsizing. Instead, with its most capable allies both able and willing to engage, the case of Mali provides the Obama administration with another opportunity to “lead from behind.” 

Following the operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, and continuing through last year’s presidential election campaign, many administration critics used that  as a cudgel to characterize the president’s approach as ineffective, insufficient, and downright weak. Certainly there were plenty of lessons to be learned from American efforts to support its allies fighting in Libya, but ultimately the West achieved most of its objectives–perhaps not as smoothly as hoped for in terms of command and control or actual operations, and certainly not without some critical support from the United States, but it succeeded.  Hence, the Libyan example may in fact comprise a workable model for future crises and operations. 

So far, it seems that Washington is indeed “leading from behind” in the case of Mali. Reports indicate the United States is providing important enablers such as intelligence and logistical support, and that the Pentagon is considering sending drones to support French efforts. It is unclear whether American unmanned aircraft deployed to the region would be armed, or whether they would merely provide surveillance. Regardless, the United States can best support its allies as well as its own security interests by playing just this kind of supporting role in places like Mali–where their interests are vital and US interests are less so. Clearly, most allies lack some of the intelligence, precision strike, and logistical capabilities resident in the American arsenal–and a decade of war in far-off Afghanistan hasn’t helped allies’ efforts to maintain robust procurement budgets. America’s ability to provide those capabilities greatly enhances their combat effectiveness. At the same time, having as reliable, capable, and willing a partner as the United States can counter insularity among our European allies and encourage them to maintain full-spectrum, expeditionary military capabilities, thereby helping to share the burden of safeguarding Western interests well beyond North American or European shores. Far from a sign of weakness, Washington’s emphasis today on “leading from behind” as one of its closest allies engages in combat operations in Mali represents a prudent policy choice and the best mean of promoting American interests.

John R. Deni is a research professor of National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.