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The bicycle theory of international diplomacy drives Mali debate into slow motion

In his first-ever address to the U.N. General Assembly, French President Francois Hollande last month made an impassioned plea for the urgent establishment of a U.N.-backed African intervention force in Mali to restore order and prevent the establishment of a terrorist haven.

"There is no time to lose," Hollande told U.N. members in his Sept. 25 speech. "The situation created by the occupation of a territory in northern Mali by terrorist groups is intolerable, inadmissible and unacceptable."

The French push for an African intervention force enjoys broad political backing in the U.N. Security Council, and the key regional powerhouse -- the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) -- has pledged to lead the intervention.

But the effort to muster a force has been stalled by a range of factors, including scattered resistance within Mali, an unclear African intervention plan, and regional concerns by Mali's neighbors, principally Algeria, that an intervention force in northern Mali would drive extremists across the border into their countries.

The United States, meanwhile, has been hesitant to back a hasty international intervention in Mali without clear signs that the West African country -- the site of a military coup last March -- is headed toward the full restoration of democratic rule. The United States, which has pledged to back an African force, is concerned that a premature intervention might consolidate the country's transitional rulers' power, giving them an incentive to remain in office.

"It is imperative that things move forward democratically in Bamako, that we see a restoration of democracy there," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jonnie Carson told reporters in New York last month. Carson said that any discussion about intervention would also have to take on board the concerns of Mali's neighbors, including Algeria (which opposes foreign intervention), Libya, and Chad (which has agreed to intervene), none of which are members of ECOWAS.

Supporters of a swift intervention have countered that the restoration of democracy is impossible to realize in a country where huge swaths of territory are outside of government control, and Islamic extremists groups are daily consolidating and extending their power. "The U.S. wants to go slow," one council diplomat told Turtle Bay. "But the Malians can't have a proper representative government if half of the country can't vote."

France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud acknowledged last week that the Security Council would have to wait until U.N and African leaders meet in Bamako on Oct. 19 to consider a force. (There is no guarantee that they will emerge from the meeting with a workable intervention plan, however.)

In the meantime, France was planning Monday night to circulate a draft Security Council resolution that would promote political talks between the government and northern rebels, aimed at compelling the rebels to disassociate themselves from Islamic extremists and approve the dispatch of some African and European Union trainers to Mali.

"We are trying to build momentum which has so far been lacking," Araud said Friday after briefing the Security Council on France's approach. "We do hope that it will be possible in a second stage, on the basis of a concept of operations, to authorize the deployment of a force."

Asked to explain France's strategy, one European diplomat compared it to what he described as the "bicycle theory of diplomacy."

"You've never heard of that?" he asked. "When a bicycle loses its momentum it falls over." French diplomacy, the diplomat explained, is aimed at trying to keep the push for an intervention force from collapsing from inaction and indecision.

The push for an African intervention force has gathered force since March 22, when military mutineers toppled the country's elected leader, creating a political and security vacuum that has been filled by northern Tuareg secessionists, allegedly working with al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

An African mediation effort led by President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso has led to the establishment of a transitional government, and ECOWAS has expressed its willingness, at least in principle, to intervene in support of the Malian government.

Malian President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra on Sept. 18 sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting a Security Council mandate for such a force "to assist the Malian Army in recapturing the northern territories," including Gao and Timbuktu.

France, the former colonial power in Mali, is reluctant to intervene on its own, but has offered support to African leaders who have expressed an interest. But ECOWAS hasn't provided a standard plan -- known as a concept of operations -- or designated troops willing or able to serve, and the Security Council won't move ahead until they do.

Security Council diplomats hope that the appointment of a new U.N. envoy for the Sahel region, which includes Mali, could help bring greater focus and coherence to the international effort to resolve the crisis in Mali. Reuters reported this weekend that U.N. Ban Ki moon had asked the council to back former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi for the job.

Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary-general, said the effort to respond to the crisis has been confounded by "so many unknowns," including the degree to which the Mali leadership is unified about inviting a foreign force, the ability of Africans trained to function in Mali's desert conditions, and the wisdom of pursuing it without the approval of the African Union. (See note below)

"It is not a very clear situation," he told a small group of reporters last week.

(Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jan Eliasson, the U.N. Deputy Secretary General, said it was unknown whether African armies had adequate training to "function in Mali's desert conditions." Eliasson said it was unclear to "what degree" African armies that have pledged to intervene in Mali can "follow up with troops trained to do what they intend to do, and from which countries they would come." Turtle Bay regrets the error.)

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

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