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The debate over how best to get involved, however, has been tricky for the Obama administration, which faced criticism for “leading from behind” in the international intervention in Libya in 2011.

On Monday, Mrs. Nuland rejected the idea that the U.S. was dragged into the Libyan conflict by European forces unable to carry out the mission by themselves, saying the effort to oust dictator Moammar Ghadafi was “a shared NATO-led operation under a U.N. Security Council Resolution.”

She said French forces were justified in entering Mali because the Malian government had formally asked Paris for help, adding that the U.S. can play only a limited role without assurances that the Malian government is truly democratic.

The U.S. is in talks with the Economic Community of West African States “with regard to supporting the deployment of African troops to support the Malian military,” she said.

“But we are not in a position to support the Malian military directly until we have democratic processes restored by way of an election in Mali,” Mrs. Nuland said.