The immediate issue is whether and how to supply American aerial refueling planes that would allow French jets to provide close-air support to ground forces moving north into territory held by the extremists. French and American officials have been in discussions for days, according to American and European officials, and administration officials say they expect a decision soon. …

Most of the reservations about whether President Obama has the legal authority to engage in military operations were resolved, officials said, after it was determined that the main targets were linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But the degree to which President Obama wants to get involved in Mali is still an open question, presenting the president and his national security team with the latest in a series of decisions about how heavily to intervene in remote conflicts.

Also in play is the depth of the American commitment to France, which is deploying nearly 3,000 ground troops to stop the expansion of a major terrorist sanctuary in Mali, its former colony.