"The U.S. is in a position of getting out of wars at the moment, not getting into new ones," one Washington insider observed.
But at the same time, the administration is concerned at al-Qaida's growing strength in Africa and the danger it poses in the mineral-rich continent if the jihadists are left alone to strengthen the haven they've carved out for themselves in a territory the size of France – just as Osama bin Laden did in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001.
In December, Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command established in 2010 to help counter such threats, warned that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the core group involved in the Islamist effort in Mali, constitutes "a very significant and growing threat, and if left unattended will present an increasing risk" to Europe as well as the United States.
The jihadists, AQIM and two regional allies, are apparently seeking to make gains before the French and African regional forces could mount a major offensive, mandated by the U.N. Security Council in December, against the stronghold in northern Mali they established in April 2012.
But after months of international dithering about what do about this threat, that was not expected to be launched until September.
It would involve 3,300 troops provided by African states and backed by France, which once ruled a colonial empire in Africa, after months of training and preparation.
But France's new president, Francois Hollande, intervened unilaterally Friday with what amounted to an impromptu invasion, fearing a major terrorist threat to Western Europe, and France, which once ruled a colonial empire in Africa, in particular.
Mali's only a few hours' flying time across the Mediterranean from France, as the French know only too well.
On Dec. 24, 1994, gunmen of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, forerunner of AQIM, hijacked an Air France A300B2 airliner at Algiers airport and threatened to fly the jet with 220 passengers into the Eiffel Tower in Paris, a forerunner of the 9/11 attacks nearly 7 years later.
The Algerian hijackers were killed when French forces stormed the airliner during a refueling stop in Marseille.
Hollande ordered airstrikes when the Mali jihadists, who have a hard core force of 3,000-4,000 fighters, suddenly struck southward last week.
A 400-man ground force was airlifted to Bamako, the Malian capital.
The Americans say they won't be putting boots on the ground to back up the French. But they've agreed to provide intelligence and are considering providing logistics, surveillance and airlift support.
France currently has some 750 troops, including Special Forces who have been waging an intermittent hit-and-run war with AQIM for the last few years in Mali, a former French colony.
This will be built up to some 2,500 combat troops in the coming days, Paris says.
Britain has provided two C-17 transport aircraft to help the French, but it too says it won't send combat troops.
However, Niger, Burkino Faso, Nigeria and Senegal have committed to immediately sending 500 troops each to back the French.
The way things are going, this may not be enough and Washington may have to rethink.
"The U.S. has been deeply reluctant to become involved in a new military campaign in North Africa which has in some ways been caused by the fallout from the 2011 operation in Libya," the Financial Times observed.
The United States aided NATO forces, including France and Britain, which used air and naval forces, as well as Special Forces "advisers," to help Libyan rebels overthrow the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
That dictatorship was toppled in an 8-month civil war, and Gadhafi murdered, but jihadist forces opposed to him seized large amounts of weapons from the regime's armories, giving the region's Islamic militants immense firepower and a surge of recruits.
Despite Washington's insistence it will not get involved in the new war against terror, it should be remembered that Obama's already running a largely clandestine war, mainly using of missile-armed drone aircraft and Special Forces, against al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.