May 12, 2014
Hillary Clinton took to Twitter last week to excoriate Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls, using the now-ubiquitous hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. If there’s any natural enemy of the girl-hating, anti-education Nigerian terror group, it should be Clinton, who made promoting women’s rights around the globe her priority as secretary of state.
At a forum in New York a few days after her tweet, she said the kidnapping “is abominable, it’s criminal, it’s an act of terrorism, and it really merits the fullest response possible.”
Strong words. Stalwart sentiment. It sounded like the fierce denunciation of a woman who would have used every tool at her disposal to combat Boko Haram when she was in power. Except that when she had the chance, Clinton refused to designate the terror group as a terror group.
Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast reported that after Boko Haram car-bombed the U.N. headquarters in Abuja in 2011, the Justice Department, the FBI and the CIA all wanted to designate the group. Clinton didn’t take them up on it. Perhaps if the dozens of dead and wounded in that suicide attack had had a hashtag devoted to them, she would have thought differently.
State Department officials worried about giving Boko Haram more publicity. This is perverse, especially in retrospect. All the celebrity tweeters about the kidnapping, including the first lady, are now seeking to give Boko Haram and its latest crime as much publicity as possible, on the assumption that it will hurt the group and help its victims.
If triggering our counterterrorism laws and isolating and denying resources to terrorist groups is really a boon to these groups, we should reconsider our entire counterterrorism apparatus. Who knew that the most effective way to fight terrorists is to ignore them as they steadily up the ante of their violence, as Boko Haram has through the years?
Former Bush-administration Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell said on “Fox News Sunday” that he and other Nigeria experts opposed the designation because it would limit contacts with Boko Haram and thus the potential for negotiations. And who would want to pre-emptively cut an al-Qaida-linked Islamic supremacist group — devoted to the imposition of sharia law and to the murder of Christians and insufficiently zealous Muslims — out of any peace process?
Clinton’s State Department did rouse itself to designate a few top Boko Haram leaders as terrorists, and finally John Kerry’s State Department got around to designating the entire group late last year. If the logic of Clinton’s defenders holds, these acts are mistakes by the U.S. government and bound to backfire and assist Boko Haram. They should be reconsidered if we really want to get serious about fighting the group — by once again finding ways to avoid calling it what it is.
The slowness of the State Department’s designation of Boko Haram, no doubt, reflects Foggy Bottom’s general reflex toward passivity and its taste for otherworldly arguments. But the designation fiasco is nonetheless a sign of how Clinton’s lackluster tenure as secretary of state will dog her. She can’t even hit Boko Haram without it becoming an argument about how she had no tangible successes. As President Barack Obama’s top foreign-policy official, she logged nearly a million miles of travel but was otherwise an appendage of a strategy of retreat.
Dean Acheson’s memoir of his time as secretary of state was called “Present at the Creation.” Hillary Clinton’s should be called, simply, “Present.” Asked at another forum recently what she considered unfinished business from her time as secretary of state, she said leadership in a democracy is a relay race where you hand off the baton to someone else.
This is what someone who hasn’t done anything says to justify her lack of accomplishment. How did she handle Boko Haram? She handed off the task of designating it as a terror group to her successor.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.