Pardon me for being late to this party. This post isn’t as much about FLOTUS and her instantly iconic hashtag image as you might think. But since the image was instantly iconic, it sets the tone perfectly.
You undoubtedly know Michelle Obama was photographed holding a hashtag sign. You probably know Ann Coulter has spoofed it, Rush Limbaugh has dissed it, and Jon Stewart, in retaliation, has lobbed an F-bomb hashtag against Rush, which the leftosphere has covered in excited detail here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
But do you know what’s, er, actually being done about Boko Haram and the Nigerian school girls?
If you’ve been getting your news from CNN, MSNBC, or really from almost any major web outlet, probably not. You may have a vague idea that the U.S. has sent some military something-or-other, and there are some sanctions in there somewhere.
Let’s parse the latter first.
It may or may not have occurred to you to wonder what “sanctions,” exactly, would be imposed on a terrorist group – which, by definition, is already a lawless operation. In fact, that’s the question posed by a staff editorial at the Nigerian independent news site NewsRescue.com on 12 May. The op-ed refers to a request made by an NGO to the UN for sanctions against Boko Haram:
What does “targeted sanctions against Boko Haram” mean? We do understand what sanctions against the Nigerian government and the government protected sponsors of Boko Haram refers to; as requested May 7th by ENDS NGO, however it is hard to relate with “sanctions against Boko Haram.”
Boko Haram is an underground terrorist informal organisation and association of criminal bandits. The operatives are akin to robbery bandits. UN listing of this group as a terrorist organisation is a meaningful request and expectation. But UN sanctions, this is either a statement in error or an attempt to confuse and possibly prevent real and necessary action against Boko Haram, their sponsors and the Nigerian government caught complicit in terror.
With this in mind, consider the policy demand of our lady senators, who gathered on Monday for a hashtag iconography op. MSNBC covered the moment of eventhood:
The 20 women who serve in the Senate called on President Barack Obama and the global community last week to impose further sanctions on Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that kidnapped more than 276 girls.
We’ll ignore the peculiar locution “more than 276 girls,” and proceed to reiterate the question: what “sanctions” are we talking about here?
The senators do clarify it somewhat:
They wrote a letter to the president, urging him to crack down on [Boko Haram] and place its members on the United Nation’s al-Qaeda sanctions list.
This seems to have a sensible, if very general, implication: treat Boko Haram like al Qaeda. The senators press President Obama, moreover, for further “sanctions” against Boko Haram. Would you have known, from the popular news coverage of the last week, that we already have what the senators call “sanctions” in place? They’re the measures we take to try to strangle the financial and other material support of third parties to terrorist organizations. In 2012, the U.S. State Department designated three of Boko Haram’s leaders as terrorists. In November 2013, the State Department designated the group itself as a foreign terrorist organization.
The United States, in other words, has been treating Boko Haram like al Qaeda (if not for as long as we would have been, had not Hillary’s reluctance slowed us down). Our “sanctions” haven’t had any noticeable effect on Boko Haram’s ability to kidnap and hold hostage hundreds of Nigerian girls.
Perhaps it will help for the UN to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. But the News Rescue editorial is dubious about that – and so am I. “Sanctions,” as applied against terrorism, fall on the sponsors of terrorism. After more than 12 years of international sanctions against the sponsors of Islamist terrorism, with an emphasis on al Qaeda and its affiliates, it’s not like there’s a big unattended pool of sponsors and their finances still left to go after. Boko Haram has been thriving in spite of the crunch already put by terrorist designation lists on the sponsors of Islamist terror.
In any case, “sanctions” would be quite meaningless to the goal of rescuing the schoolgirl hostages.
It’s not that the senators are wrong to push for a UN designation. But there’s certainly a mismatch between the drama of their hashtag appeal and the practical utility of what they propose.
The rest of the story
There is also the point that Nigeria has opposed the UN designation of Boko Haram (see the Heritage link above), because of concerns about national-security reputation and the oil and gas industry. It’s from this perspective that the News Rescue op-ed views terrorist designation, per se, as insufficient. The Nigerian government has to come to grips with what it will take to neutralize Boko Haram and break its hold on much of the country. The problem is much bigger than the crisis of the moment.
In the current situation, meanwhile, Boko Haram hasn’t been passive. It has put a deal on the table for an exchange – hostage schoolgirls for imprisoned terrorists – if the government in Lagos will negotiate. According to reports from the last 24 hours, the Jonathan government is ready to pursue this ill-advised course.
Which in turn seems to suggest its spine hasn’t been stiffened by the “U.S. military support” freely if vaguely heralded by popular media reporting since the weekend. It will be no surprise to learn that the support takes the form of about two dozen “advisors” – almost all of whom were already in country – and the inauguration of U.S. reconnaissance flights over Nigeria. The inevitable drones are reportedly in the works as well.
But the timing of the ongoing U.S. military support initiative, which was launched in January (see the CSM link above), is interesting in its own right. Was it the prospect of a new, U.S.-enhanced push on the part of the Nigerian government that prompted Boko Haram to take so many schoolgirls hostage just at this time?
The beauty of this particular move is that the terrorists can string its extortion-and-inoculation factor out over a period of months, if they play their cards right. Should the Jonathan government negotiate an exchange of some kind, we can bet that Boko Haram will release only a few girls, and keep plenty on-hand to barter with over time. The continued presence of schoolgirl hostages will stay the hand of armed retaliation against the terrorists in their lair.
It’s certainly possible that the U.S., with or without the participation of other nations’ forces, will try to mount a commando operation to free the girls. The odds against such an operation being successful – i.e., freeing the great majority of the girls, without getting them killed – would be stupendous under the best of circumstances. But perhaps the willingness of the Nigerian government to negotiate with Boko Haram is merely a play for time, while the assets are lined up to attempt what would be a truly daring rescue.
No there there to rally our forces around
I doubt that, however, even if I hate to advise giving up hope. The pity of our state of civilization is that instead of talking sensibly about the prospects of the current situation, our media and our public officials are striking poses and spouting meaningless nonsense. This isn’t policy as usual. And the reason it’s the main impression we have about the Boko Haram hostage crisis is that there’s no leadership message at all from the Obama administration.
Daniel Greenfield suggests that we have in fact seen a message from the administration: that the hashtag politics are meant to indict the Nigerian government, which will be damned if it does manage to pry the girls from Boko Haram, and damned if it doesn’t. He may be right, although I hesitate to attribute the hashtag business to a conscious, positive strategy. If there’s strategy involved, it’s the negative strategy of the ‘60s radical: throw tantrums, fling innuendo, and see what you can induce others to do, from annoyance or exhaustion.
It won’t be Boko Haram that gets tripped up by such an approach, however. In Boko Haram, the community-organizer playbook has met its match. The more ruthless Boko Haram is, the higher it can run up the score. Unlike the community organizers, it doesn’t have to worry about the November election in America.
I very much hope that the deluded millennials celebrating hashtag politics today aren’t about to learn a painful lesson through the blood of Nigerian schoolgirls. But then, there’s a question as to what they would learn from it, when too many commentators and even public officials don’t actually seem to understand what’s going on.