01/28/2013 09:56 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Vive La France!

The French have shattered and scattered the Islamist jihadis in Mali. It has taken them three weeks. Washington is stunned. French Fries may be restored to Congressional cafeteria menus. Ultra-patriots may have to drop from their polemical vocabulary the pejorative "French surrender monkeys." There are even reports that some knowledge of the France and French may come back into vogue among the Georgetown cosmopolites. All this from a small police action that involved a couple of dozen planes and an ad hoc coalition of regional locals. All this while the White House was still wringing its hands over whether to provide the French with some in-flight tankers and, if so, whether to charge them. All this while the master strategists of the Global War On Terror huffed-and-puffed about a UNSC mandate for some sort of ECOWAS expeditionary force to defend Bamako.

Skeptics of the American GWOT may be tempted to take perverse delight in comparing this performance with the strenuous failures that compose the United States' record over the past 11 years. That is too facile a judgment. The contrast indeed is illuminating but there is much to assimilate and ponder before jumping to the conclusion that now the real, authentic magic bullet has been found for dealing with Islamic terrorism. What is called for is hard thinking that weds knowledge to logic in setting objectives and goals -- in place of impulse and fancy. Here are a few suggestions as to what insights we should garner from the Mali affair and the perspective that it offers us on the campaign to cleanse the world of violent jihadis hostile to the West.

First is the compelling need for differentiation. Each of the several groups spawned by the original al-Qaida phenomenon has its own distinguishing characteristics. Each operates in a distinctive social, political and religious milieu. Short-hand use of the terms "al-Qaida" or "Islamic terrorist" is a fatal habit. It afflicts officials and analysts whose instinctive resort to catch-phrases exposes a lazy mind and a self-serving dogmatism that masks a wider agenda. That agenda includes an expansion of American political influences across broad swathes of the Islamic world and the protection of status quo regimes nominally friendly to the West. The strategy's passion is generated by the audacious, unreachable goal of eliminating the last vestiges of any outfit ready to use terror against America, Americans or the country's interests. For some of our leaders, that's it; for others, the crusade permits a general mobilization to reinforce established positions of dominance.

Both benefit from adherence to the simple formula: "if you've seen one jihadist movement, you've seen them all." Especially so if they add the word "al-Qaeda" to their name. Hence, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Pensinsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb evoke fearful emotions and sound the alarm bells. Their local grievances or identities or aims are lost in the Pavlovian reaction. In this way, their own choice of the label for the sake of publicity, cachet and funding simultaneously makes them a target of the GWOT. The result is simplicity of interpretation and simplicity of response. Cowboys and Indians. Threat and force become the common denominators.

The components of the insurgent coalition in Mali are diverse: AQIM is an Algerian spin-off; Ansar Dine is a home-grown salafist movement; National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is a multi-form Tuareg based separatist movement; there are affiliated criminal bands turned salafist such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA/MUJAO), itself a splinter group of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb led by "Mr. Marlboro" Mukhtar Belmukhta -- yesterday a smuggler/kidnapper, today a jihadi, and tomorrow no doubt a Robin Hood of the Sahara. They are a mix of three different races and include five or six nationalities. The French knew all of this and designed a strategy accordingly. They were aware that inflicting a quick, punishing defeat on the most militarily capable group (that drawn from Gadhaffi's mercenary army) would demoralize the rest, lead to defections and stimulate others to sue for peace. Long colonial and post-colonial experience favored this approach. So, too, did limited resources and limited objectives.

This has not been the American way. In Iraq, it took us at least a couple of years to understand the Sunni-Shia dynamic. David Petraeus was recruiting a new Iraqi army pell-mell without regard to the recruits' sectarian identity or militia allegiances. This was the ersatz army that he hailed as ready to stabilize a democratic Iraq in op-eds he penned in the fall of 2004 in a clever move to curry favor with George Bush's reelection campaign. We sent there hundreds of thousands of troops, Blackwater-hired guns, and civilians without as much as an Arab phrase book. As two Army officers stationed in Mosul during the Petraeus command told me, when they knocked down the door of a targeted house in a night raid, they shouted:, "Get your Goddamn f***ing a**es on the floor!" In Afghanistan we ignored, and still downplay, the importance of organizing all the security and intelligence agencies in a way that gives sway to Tajiks and Uzbeks while slighting Pashtuns.

A second, companion lesson is to avoid magnifying and aggrandizing the concrete problem that you face in a given place and situation. It's the "sky-fall" syndrome. Disaster is pending. Western civilization is endangered, etc. So Leon Panetta looks at the ragtag Malian insurgents and warns,"They're a threat to the world." (Including China and New Zealand, presumably). Hillary Rodham Clinton berates members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for badgering her about the Benghazi consulate when the really big, important thing is that "instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria across the region." The Benghazi attack, she shouts, didn't happen in a vacuum but was part of a "broader strategic challenge in North Africa."

This attitude not only homogenizes an extraordinarily complicated reality. It also encourages cookie-cutter responses destined to fail. This is not "smart power."

A third lesson is the proportionality of means. That refers both to the mix of the military and the political, the coercive and the incentivizing -- and to the scale of violence. The United States' approach has been overly "kinetic." It induces false confidence in what our military capabilities can accomplish; its inescapable civilian casualties make it counterproductive; it militates against adapting methods as circumstances evolve. True, the Malian insurgents did not present the order of battle that encouraged "shock and awe" in Iraq or carpet-bombing of Taliban positions in the Panjshir Valley. But the promiscuous use of power that got us nowhere in Somalia and Yemen (or Vietnam -- of distant memory) might well have been the order of the day had we geared up for a campaign in Mali. Fortunately, we were spared that latest experiment in hammering flies with heavy munitions. Pass the croissants.

Finally, multilateralism as a diplomatic and military modus operandi has the advantages of conferring legitimacy and marshaling political support internationally and domestically. It has the disadvantages of being slow to organize, inflexible, and inefficient. NATO's Libyan operation was a shambles; Mali was highly effective.