Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
Mali might not be Afghanistan, but a country just south of the empty Sahara is geographically much closer to Europe. Refugees and, with a certain delay, economic migrants from this area can reach the southern shores of Europe within weeks and then there is not much to block their drifting north through borderless Europe. That's just what happened over the last two years in Tunisia and Libya, and still happens after the turmoil there.
Whereas the weak but basically benevolent governments in Tunis and Tripoli can be harnessed into overall solutions, a potential Islamist government in Mali would do the opposite: exporting terrorism into the soft underbelly of Europe.
That is why the French intervention in Mali, for all its risks (potential prolonged guerrilla war, no exit strategy, etc) was judged the smaller risk. Inaction would have likely seen the Islamists sweep into the capital, Bamako. The theory that Jihadists would not be interested in a landlocked, failed state such as Mali (see Aron Ellis in The Spectator of 24 January) is plain nonsense. It is precisely in states destabilised and eventually failed through internal turmoil where extremists thrive in the absence of official security structures. A look at Yemen proves the point.
For France, the intervention is a European godsend. Overnight, the country has moved from economic weakling to politico-military leader of Europe. So far it has had to share this role with the UK for evident historical but also very present reasons. The British Armed Forces are arguably still Europe's preeminent fighting force.
Now enters Cameron's recent Europe speech, which was not so much flawed for what was said but what was omitted: the fact that only as a single market (still globally the largest) and as a single political force, including in security policy, can Europe hope to play in the global Champions League with the other great powers. The US, and just about everybody else, including China, had reminded Cameron of that before he went public.
What the UK should have done, and still can do, is fly (literally!) to the aid of the French, proving the point that without the Franco-British tandem, Europe is politically toothless. I know London has sent a few transport planes, but so has Germany (the economic giant of Europe but forever dithering in military affairs) and even smaller European states.
Philip Stephens put it very succinctly in the Financial Times: 'this where the irresistible force of rising Tory europhobia meets the immovable object of geopolitical reality'.
Photo courtesy of the French Defence Ministry.