07/19/2012 05:29 EDT | Updated 09/17/2012 05:12 EDT

The Country Where Canada Won't Intervene

Getty Images

Hindsight is everything. At the time, arming Afghanistan's mujahideen to fight the Soviets may have seemed like a good idea to some. In retrospect, facilitating fanatical Islamists in their fight to push out the Soviets might not have been the best course of action.

What if I told you we were being given a second chance? That somewhere in the world, in a far off place so out of the way that it seems almost irrelevant, but most certainly too burdensome to mount a proper response, fanatical Islamists had gained a stronghold, declared an independent state founded on Shariah law and begun destroying remnants of an over thousand year-old civilization while terrorizing the local population in the name of Islam. All the while these same rulers seem bent on creating a safe space for the world's next generation of jihadists.

No, I haven't recreated Afghanistan; I just described what's happening today, in Mali.

Since a coup overthrew Mali's democratic government in March, Islamists, made up of the home-grown but Al-Qaeda supported Ansar Dine, and their counterparts from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have worked assiduously at consolidating their power in the country's unforgiving north. At first they joined forces with the local ethnic group, the Tuareg, in their quest for independence from the central state but eventually drove them out. The Islamists consolidated their hold on the region last week.

A makeshift camp in neighbouring Mauritania already has a population of 92,000 Malians who have fled the Islamist's harsh justice. On top of terrorizing the local population in the name of Islam, they have also destroyed cultural heritage sites in the famed city of Timbuktu, proclaiming them contrary to Shariah, prompting the International Criminal Court to begin an inquiry into war crimes.

All the while, the world struggles to piece together a response to these developments, in a place already being referred to as "Africanistan."

France's Foreign Minister has said, "At one moment or another there will probably be the use of force." Though whose force he means is up in the air. French President Francois Hollande was more clear and called on the African Union to organize a military response to the situation in Mali. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird stated emphatically, "Let me be clear that Canada is not contemplating a military mission in Mali."

Thus, for now, finding a solution falls to the African Union and the West-African regional bloc ECOWAS, who are devoid of all but moral support from the rest of the world. In the interim, local youths protesting the destruction of their way of life and ancient heritage have begun to take to the streets with machetes and sticks.

This can't end well, for anyone.

The past year and a half has posed a tremendous challenge to Western democracies. The Arab Spring, and in particular the uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, has tested our commitments to human rights and freedoms in such a manner as to give serious cause for introspection. Whether we have failed our ideals might remain to be seen. That we have not done them justice cannot be denied.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was supposed to be a recognition that it was easier to deal with situations before they got messy and that once a certain threshold of gravity had been attained, those situations were everyone's problem.

Michael Ignatieff, one of R2P's authors, recently wrote: "Syria tells us that the era of humanitarian intervention, 'responsibility to protect,' is over... For we are tired and worried about our economies back home and responsibility for other people's freedom has turned out to be a costly and dirty business."

Whether the situation in Mali fits R2P's paradigm is besides the point. That the situation there reaches beyond human rights and opens a bold, new front in the battle against terrorism should be a crie de coeur for our most serious consideration, but it is not. Memory is short.

The justifications for approaching the situation in Mali with caution are valid:

• numerous actors, each with different interests, cultures, and long-standing histories demand prudence and humility on our part;

• direct intervention may not be the wisest course of action;

• we lack the resources, human, material, and economic, to fight a war in the African Sahel to defeat an enemy both real and ephemeral;

• we cannot be parachuting in, figuratively and literally, from conflict to conflict -- it's just not feasible.

And then there is the unspoken reason, that when put into action, our humanitarianism is selective.

And so Mali will continue to unravel. A people will continue to suffer and a civilization stretching back thousands of years will continue to be destroyed. Africanistan will continue to unfold.

As this transpires before us, we will remain a people paralyzed, paralyzed by confusion, exhaustion and fear -- the fear of what our ideals demand from us today and the challenge that entails, but also by the fear of failing that challenge, for what it may mean for our tomorrow.