“War,” the 19th century humorist Ambrose Bierce allegedly said, “is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” It’s safe to say that until very recently, most of us couldn’t have found Mali on a map — if, that is, we even knew there was such a country. But when the French government launched air strikes and sent ground troops into the West African nation, Mali suddenly demanded our collective attention.
Why should Americans care what happens there? Not because the United States is about to dispatch air or ground forces to help our ally. Not because it implicates any of our many military alliances or threatens one of our longtime partners. But because seemingly unimportant events in obscure, faraway lands can eventually lead to dire consequences — even for the world’s only superpower.
We all learned that on Sept. 11, 2001, when a radical Islamist group harbored by the Afghan government crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Soon we were at war in Afghanistan — and we still are.
We drove al-Qaida largely out of that country and, over time, killed many of its leaders — including, in 2011, Osama bin Laden. But in doing so, we forced the terrorist organization to scatter, decentralize and find new confederates, in places from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama said al-Qaida was “on its heels.” Lately, however, it has found more footholds outside its customary haunts in South Asia.