Most Americans probably hadn’t heard of Boko Haram before last week, when the group kidnapped 270 Nigerian schoolgirls and threatened to sell them into slavery. Nigerians responded with a social media campaign, which drew support from celebrities and even first lady Michelle Obama. The demand: #bringbackourgirls.
President Obama has committed U.S. drones and reconnaissance to the search for the girls. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the president should send special forces to rescue the girls – with or without Nigerian officials’ permission – because their abduction amounts to “crimes against humanity” under the United Nations’ charter.
Will anything short of American force save those kidnapped girls? Should Boko Haram be the next target in the flagging U.S. war against terrorism? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.
Just a few years ago, recall, President Obama was saying “al-Qaida is on the run” and that the terrorist umbrella organization was “on the path to defeat” in Iraq and Afghanistan. He noted emerging threats in Africa and the Arabian peninsula, however.
Turns out, al-Qaida is doing just fine. Boko Haram – whose name translates, more or less, to “Western education for girls is forbidden” – is an al-Qaida satellite. This group that few Americans knew about until recently has been terrorizing Nigerians in general, and Christians in particular, for several years.
The group is well-funded and well-organized. The Nigerian government’s effort to suppress it has largely failed. U.S. law prevents the president from providing direct military aid to Nigeria, because government forces are almost as bad as Boko Haram.
Instead, we’re flying drones and aircraft over an area “roughly the size of New England,” looking for nearly 300 girls who deserve better than what they’re getting right now.
Sen. McCain’s recommendation isn’t serious. It’s cheap posturing. U.S. special operators are the finest in the world, but they aren’t magicians. He knows as well as anyone that we don’t simply drop four or six SEALs into the wilderness and expect them to emerge in a few weeks, mission accomplished.
The War on Terrorism has stretched our special forces to their limit. Hundreds of our top warriors have been killed or wounded around the world. Their operations rely on extensive logistical support and communications.
We wouldn’t simply be putting a few “boots on the ground” in Nigeria. It would be hundreds, perhaps thousands.
And for what? Americans’ hearts break at the thought of those girls, snatched at gunpoint from their classrooms, being held captive by thugs beholden to a medieval ideology. But emotional appeals cannot be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. And half-measures may be worse than no measures at all.
What McCain proposes would be the Republican flip-side of “leading from behind.” Just send in special forces and hope for the best. Failure is not an option because it’s not even a consideration. Neither is wiping Boko Haram from the face of the earth.
Here’s a three-part test to determine when the U.S. should go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
An example: Yemen. The United States has been conducting an increasingly unpopular drone campaign there for years against al-Qaida-affiliated militants; in recent weeks, the war has escalated, with terrorists attempting – and failing – to kidnap U.S. intelligence officials, who had to shoot their way out of a Yemeni barbershop to survive. Once you start a war, you don’t necessarily choose when and where it ends.
A U.S. intervention against Boko Haram wouldn’t make America safer; it would probably make us less safe. The U.S. cannot and should not try to eliminate evil in the world. The people and parents of Nigeria have our good wishes – but they must do their own fighting.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.