Will Obama Fall Victim to ‘Creeping Interventionism’ in Nigeria?

Will Obama Fall Victim to ‘Creeping Interventionism’ in Nigeria?

Will Obama Fall Victim to ‘Creeping Interventionism’ in Nigeria?

Boko Haram is a monstrous group, but fighting it is not America’s job.


John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator who apparently has never met a country he didn’t want to invade, now wants to invade Nigeria—and he’s not alone. Plenty of other neoconservative adventurists are demanding the same thing, and in the meantime they’re using the tragedy of the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian girls to portray both President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as weak-kneed, lily-livered and bumbling.

Thanks to Josh Rogin over at The Daily Beast, we learn that McCain had this to say about the girls missing in Nigeria:

If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country.… I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.… I would not be involved in the niceties of getting the Nigerian government to agree, because if we did rescue these people, there would be nothing but gratitude from the Nigerian government, such as it is.

Of course, the “some guy” that McCain refers to is the president of Nigeria.

Bill Kristol, the neoconservative bombardier who runs The Weekly Standard, apparently agrees with McCain:

It would be nice to learn that the administration has ordered the U.S. Marine Corps and various U.S. special operations forces to plan a rescue mission. It would be nice to learn the Obama administration has ordered the military to plan to destroy or cripple Boko Haram. It would be nice to see Hillary Clinton make the case for this.

The mention of Clinton is important, for Kristol and other neoconservatives, because they have gotten their knickers in an uproar over the fact that Clinton’s State Department didn’t designate Boko Haram, the group behind the kidnappings, as an official “terrorist organization” back in 2011—as if that would have made any difference to anyone. Back then, the FBI, the CIA and various intelligence and counterterrorism officials wanted to “designate” Boko Haram, but The New York Times quoted Johnnie Carson, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs between 2009 and 2013, saying that the State Department refused “for six or seven different reasons.” Among those reasons: it would give the group additional publicity, perhaps turning them into heroes of the jihadist movement, and it would have aligned the United States with a clumsy, brutal and heavy-handed crackdown on the group by the Nigerian military, which slaughtered hundreds in its effort to reassert control in the troubled region of the northeast.

There’s no disputing the fact that Boko Haram is a vicious, destructive group led by a person who is probably insane. Journalist Eliza Griswold, appearing on CNN’s GPS, described him as a “lunatic”:

Abubakar Shekau…is really a lunatic. If one were to compare him to somebody else in Africa, we would look at Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who actually in setting precedent took a whole school of young girls from their boarding school some years ago in northern Uganda.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, Shekau makes use of YouTube to proclaim his near-insanity, laughing and cackling about the kidnapped girls, promising to sell them off to be married, and worse—including threatening to hold them as sex slaves. But there’s obvious method to his madness, and lately he’s been portraying himself as a willing combatant against American troops, proving Clinton and Carson right that what Boko Haram wants most is publicity and notoriety. Said a shouting Shekau:

We don’t fear any American troops.… Let even the Pharaoh himself be sent down here! We will deal with him squarely!

So far at least, President Obama seems to have handled the matter judiciously, offering surveillance assistance and other limited help to the Nigerian government and insisting that “ransom payments and other concessions” are unthinkable. But there’s a danger of a kind of “creeping interventionism” that Obama must resist.

Obama did address the limits of power for the United States in situations such as that in Nigeria, in comments that made a lot of sense to sensible people but which outraged the neocons. Said the president:

I have this remarkable title right now—president of the United States. And yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment?

Obama offered limited help, including law enforcement experts and hostage negotiations experts:

In a sign of deepening global concern, on [May 5] the United States offered to provide a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists, to assist the Nigerians in recovering the girls, an offer that the government here accepted. American officials said “military resources” would not be included, but President Obama weighed in, vowing to “do everything we can.”

However, The Washington Post added that the United States is conducting surveillance flights and might employ surveillance drones, too:

The Obama administration is conducting surveillance flights over Nigeria in the search for more than 250 abducted schoolgirls and is considering the deployment of drones to the region to bolster the effort, officials said Monday.

And does that mean that the United States ought to get even more deeply involved, training the Nigerian military? That’s the next step, it seems, and it’s one step closer to the sort of intervention that McCain wants, though there’s no sign of US combat troops yet—an option rejected by most members of Congress—and certainly not without Nigeria’s permission. Still, according to Defense News, trainers are on the way:

In a quiet escalation of its mission, US Army’s Africa is preparing to send soldiers and special operations forces to Nigeria to train that nation’s forces for combat operations, a first for the command that traditionally has trained local forces for only peacekeeping missions.

A story posted on the US Army’s official website on Friday said the team will arrive in Nigeria to train a newly formed 650-man Ranger battalion by the end of the month with an eye toward fighting the Boko Haram militant group.

Obama may be frustrated by the crisis in Nigeria, along with the one in Ukraine, but he has to resist the idea that the United States and its military can solve it.


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