Bromund: Hashtags no substitute for strategy

People attend a demonstration calling on government to

People attend a demonstration calling on government to rescue kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, during workers day celebration in Lagos, Nigeria. Thursday, May, 1. 2014, Scores of girls and young women kidnapped from a school in Nigeria are being forced to marry their Islamic extremist abductors, a civic organization reported Wednesday. (Credit: AP)

The Obama administration's dispatch of an expert team to Nigeria to help search for the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram illustrates the power of social media to shape policy. But it also reveals the blind spots of the administration's approaches to Africa and terrorism alike.

Without the Twitter campaign for the release of the girls, the administration would not have been so eager to advertise its seemingly humanitarian response. And that response amounts to less than it seems, for the United States already had military planners, advisers and trainers working with the Nigerians.

The value of the public U.S. mission rests mostly in the increased impetus it will give to U.S.-Nigerian cooperation. It also gives the United States a louder voice in urging Nigerians to refuse both ransom payments and requests to release captured Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the girls.

But this is not a mere kidnapping case. While Boko Haram kidnaps schoolgirls, it kills schoolboys. In February, for example, it massacred dozens of boys in an attack on a high school dormitory. In the rent-a-conscience realm of social media, it's easy to lose that piece of context.

Another vital piece of context is also missing. Boko Haram does not simply kidnap girls. It focuses its crimes on Christians, because it believes it is fighting for Islam. That is not the politically correct thing to say, and the administration avoids saying it. But it is the truth.

The White House says Boko Haram has "heinous and malicious intent." That is true. But why does it have those intentions? You would never know from White House press secretary Jay Carney's announcement that this "outrage and . . . tragedy" has anything to do with religious extremism.

At least the administration has designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, which requires the United States to hold its members, and those who aid it, criminally liable. The Heritage Foundation called for the United States to take this step in 2012, but it was not until after Hillary Clinton left the State Department in 2013 that the administration designated Boko Haram.

From Benghazi to Boko Haram, the administration has tried to uphold its claim that radical Islamism is on the retreat. As a result, Clinton blames the Nigerian government as much as she blames the terrorists. She calls the terrorists "radical" -- again, no mention of religion -- but describes the government as "derelict" and corrupt, and views Boko Haram's victories as a consequence of its failure.

Nigeria is corrupt and ineffective. But it is hardly the only bad apple in the neighborhood. Libya is near chaos, governance in Chad and Mali does not exist, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic are engaging in ethnic cleansing, and South Sudan is being ripped apart by ethnic violence. Much of this violence has been given a new impetus by the Islamist Winter that followed the Arab Spring.

In its neighborhood, Nigeria stands out as better than average: At least some of its federal states are competent. The problem is not merely that Nigeria is badly governed: It is that the region is weakly governed, and Nigeria is not strong enough to resist the wider religious and tribal forces pulling upon it.

We are being led to believe that helping Nigeria is a mission of mercy. But we are taking sides in a religious war. And while we are right to side against Islamist terror, we are publicly entering this war, which the administration is not eager to explain, simply because taking visible action can be sold as easy, popular and humane. The problems of Nigeria and its neighbors are too serious to be treated so casually.

Ted R. Bromund is senior research analyst in The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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