The Obama administration is weighing what kind of military support it can provide to France, which has launched an airborne and ground-based offensive in Mali against Islamist rebels linked to al Qaeda.

What is under discussion is the likelihood of a direct threat against the U.S. homeland, and therefore whether vital U.S. interests are engaged. The same considerations caused President Obama to “lead from behind” on Libya. Yet so far, on Mali, the U.S. response is even more timid. And while the policy discussions continue in Washington, North Africa is in flames.

Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.) today claimed responsibility for a brazen attack on a gas facility in Algeria, possibly to punish the Algerians for facilitating the French strikes.

It is worth remembering that al Qaeda and its acolytes pose a threat not only to Europeans but to the way of life of every American. It is also worth remembering that NATO is at least indirectly responsible for the flow of arms to the Malian rebels, which transited across the porous borders after Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi used Tuareg mercenaries in support of his rule.

Yet the U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice, still says that Washington has doubts about the utility and effectiveness of a West African force that, according to a U.N. resolution, is supposed to take over the lead from the French in crushing the rebels. Such a stance is only delaying an appropriate response.

It is in nobody's interest that Mali becomes a real failed state in which the north is held by al Qaeda clones bent on imposing their primitive form of Islam upon the population and establishing a bridgehead from which they could carry out their threats of attack.

French President Francois Hollande has prepared French public opinion for the military strikes by talking about wiping out and capturing the Islamist “terrorists,” who have rapidly advanced toward the Malian capital, Bamako. He rightly says that France will not be blackmailed by the rebels, who are holding seven French hostages.

This is not about French colonialism, as some have suggested. It is a threat that should be of concern to us all. As Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put it, “When confronting a shared threat, we should have our ally's back.”