Please Help Me Decide

My understanding of the “SaveOurGirls” hashtag campaign is that it began on Twitter among Nigerians as a spontaneous method of protesting the Goodluck government’s apparent indifference to the kidnapping of several hundred girls by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. As such I think it’s completely appropriate.

My immediate reaction to the First Lady’s entering the campaign was discomfort and I’d like to explain why. When the president or First Lady or Speaker of the House or other major official or semi-official public figure enters into a popular campaign it has several effects. It attracts attention to the campaign. It coopts the campaign. Whether intended or not it gives the campaign political and even diplomatic meaning it might otherwise not have had. None of these are under the First Lady’s control. Her mere participation is enough.

I think that the main thing the U. S. should do with respect to the kidnappings and more generally with respect to the Nigerian government’s activities against Boko Haram is maintain a low profile. I think it’s a problem for Nigerians to solve and, should they need additional resources, for the African Union to solve. I’m uncomfortable with colonial powers taking a leading role in the matter. Or even honorary colonial powers.

I think that the much-publicized (and occasionally mocked) photo of the First Lady is a sincere expression of feeling on her part and, obviously, she’s entitled to her feelings. But as a public figure I’m not quite as sure that she’s entitled to express them publicly especially if that expression is taken as a commitment of American resources.

It’s been suggested that the participation of the First Lady puts additional pressure on the Goodluck government. I think that’s a fair argument in favor but I’m not completely convinced.

Discomfort on my part is not opposition. It’s discomfort and I’m trying to decide what I should think about all of this.

What should I think about U. S. participation in a clearly internal Nigerian problem? About “hashtag diplomacy”? Please help me decide.

28 comments… add one
  • ...

    Personally I’m thinking that they are NOT our girls, and claiming that they are is unwarranted posturing. We are not the world. It’s unfortunate what’s happening, but that’s true of many things that aren’t our business either.

    And hsdhtag diplomacy is simply stupid. It’s not like the US government lacks outlets from which to publicize its views in more than 140 characters.

  • There are people who need to be “the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

  • ...

    Such people shouldn’t be in the diplomatic corps. Although I suppose it is unavoidable that we will get them occupying the Presidency and the SecState position.

  • ...

    Sub-heading on a Christian Science Monitor story:

    Three weeks after hundreds of teenage girls were abducted while taking exams, it remains unclear how many girls were taken, who they are, who did it, at what time, and exactly how.

    If this report is true, and the Nigerians can’t even figure out the basics, then I see why we should but in. It that case it’s just another failed state, and unless we want to adopt them (as we did with Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq), we should leave them alone.

  • ...

    Another choice bit from that story:

    For starters, the number of girls taken away by the self-described Islamist radical Boko Haram and later rescued keeps changing. First it was 129 girls rescued. Then 121 were rescued and 8 were missing. The next day, none had been rescued at all. No collective set of photos of the girls appears to exist, or even all their names (some websites with photos of the girls have used photos lifted from elsewhere).

  • You bring up a larger point. There are large sections of the globe that have no operational government. Pakistan’s government, for example, has been described as “a government without a country”.

    An enormous proportion of the world’s biggest troublemakers have taken refuge in those areas and there’s no international strategy for dealing with that. Tom Barnett’s preferred strategy was an international convention that deputized the U. S. to do pretty much anything we cared to in those areas which stretch from the Bosporus to the Indus and include most of Central Africa. I opposed that on a number of grounds.

  • michael reynolds

    First point: Twitter is the Media. So using Twitter is no different than using CNN. And you have the added benefit of no Wolf Blitzer. Had Michelle Obama been interviewed on-air and asked about the matter she’d have said we want to see the girls returned unharmed. And no one would lift an eyebrow.

    Second point: It is almost never wrong to speak up for what’s right. Kristallnacht was an internal matter. The Killing Fields were an internal matter. The Great Leap Forward was an internal matter. Evil does not like sunshine, and our moral obligation as human beings is to resist evil to the extent practicable. That doesn’t mean sending SEAL teams every time there’s a problem, let alone invading, but can we shine a little light? Yes, and we should.

    Now, did I roll my eyes when I saw Michelle’s tweet? Of course. I’m a cynical old man. But on reflection the fact that it will accomplish very little does not mean it should not be tried. Now even other jihadis are condemning them. Will this make the cretin who runs Boko Haram more leery? Possibly. Will it make his financial supporters more leery? Possibly. Any harm done? Nope.

  • PD Shaw

    Nigeria is a strategic U.S. ally in the region, and is deserving of U.S. support in terms of training and intelligence. But not without reservations about the extent to which past U.S. aid for these purposes has been mishandled by the government. Drawing attention to the plight of these young girls (particularly in the light of promises of more kidnapping), probably won’t influence the kidnappers, though I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong. But the attention should also be on the Nigerian government who needs to effectively use international support to keep its people safe.

    I don’t know what twitter is, so I can’t help with hashtag promotions.

  • ...

    They don’t seem a very effective ally if they don’t even know what happened to whom a month after the fact. Especially in the case of the girls that were “rescued”.

    And why do these girls deserve massive amounts of international attention and other cases don’t? I’m sure there are lots of girls being harmed in the CAR without even looking for the stories. (Would anyone but the French even report on them?) There’s all manner of crap happening all over the world all the time.

  • That’s another aspect of this story that I didn’t mention, PD. Publicity might actually incentivize more kidnappings by other groups. The British and French media have been agonizing over that very aspect for some time.

  • PD Shaw

    @Dave, I believe that is the same theory that was used to reject labeling Boko Haram as terrorist organization — it would be an award that give then more attention and backing. But here we are, they acted like terrorists anyway. They need to be killed and their organization destroyed.

    @Elipses, its not really about the girls, they’re a symptom of a problem that could quickly degenerate. Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa, significant U.S. exports and imports, and offers stability to the region, including I believe providing the bulk of the forces in the African Union peacekeepers.

  • They need to be killed and their organization destroyed.

    Ellipsis does bring up a good point on that. Does Boko Haram actually exist? I’m not sure that’s a question we’re prepared to answer (think “the dread pirate Roberts”).

    However, assuming there is something more than an amorphous group calling itself Boko Haram, we don’t have the resources in place to do anything about it. It would take considerable time and expense to develop them and I honestly can’t see us doing it.

    The more relevant question is why isn’t the Goodluck government doing anything about it? I would suggest relative priorities and we should be cautious about sticking our noses into another country to promote a political agenda of which we’re ignorant.

  • ...

    @Elipses, its not really about the girls, they’re a symptom of a problem that could quickly degenerate.

    You mean Nigeria could end up looking like Chad? Or Mali? Of Libya? Or Zimbabwe? Or CAR? Of Congo (or whatever they’re calling themselves this week)? Or Rwanda of 1994? Or Uganda of the King of Scotland days?

  • ...

    From the Office of the United States Trade Representative:

    U.S.-Nigeria Trade Facts

    Nigeria is currently our 35th largest goods trading partner with $18.2 billion in total (two way) goods trade during 2013. Goods exports totaled $6.5 billion; Goods imports totaled $11.7 billion. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Nigeria was $5.2 billion in 2013.


    Nigeria was the United States’ 40th largest goods export market in 2013.

    U.S. goods exports to Nigeria in 2013 were $6.5 billion, up 28.8% ($1.4 billion) from 2012.

    The top export categories (2-digit HS) in 2013 were: Mineral Fuel (oil) ($2.1 billion), Vehicles ($1.3 billion), Cereals (wheat) ($962 million), Machinery ($820 million), and Plastic ($185 million).

    U.S. exports of agricultural products to Nigeria totaled $ 1.1 billion in 2013. Leading category is: wheat ($959 million).


    Nigeria was the United States’ 30th largest supplier of goods imports in 2013.

    U.S. goods imports from Nigeria totaled $11.7 billion in 2013, a 38.3% decrease ($7.3 billion) from 2012. Nearly all of U.S. imports from Nigeria was oil.

    The five largest import categories in 2013 were: Mineral Fuel (oil) ($11.6 billion), Cocoa ($29 million), Special Other (returns) ($21 million), Food Waste ($9 million), and Art and Antiques ($5 million).

    U.S. imports of agricultural products from Nigeria totaled $52 million in 2013. Leading category is: cocoa beans ($21 million).

    Trade Balance

    The U.S. goods trade deficit with Nigeria was $5.2 billion in 2013, a 62.5% decrease ($8.7 billion) from 2012.


    U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in Nigeria (stock) was $8.2 billion in 2012 (latest data available), up 53.6% from 2011.

    U.S. direct investment in Nigeria is led by the mining sector.

    Nigeria FDI in the United States (stock) was $22 million in 2012 (latest data available), up 15.8% from 2011.


    *NOTE: No services trade data with Nigeria is available.

    A good or bad day at the stock market swamps our trade with Nigeria. At a guess it’s the size of the US domestic film industry box office for any given summer. (I am probably guessing way to high for the film industry.) It would suck to lose that if you were involved with it, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the recent QE program for example, and they’ve seen fit to cut that by, what?, about $40 billion a MONTH.

    The oil will most likely be retrieved one way or another. (The Chinese happen to love African oil, I know for a fact.) The big loss domestically would be to companies using cocoa beans. And I believe they’ve got even bigger worries right now.

  • ...

    Dang, forgot the link. Sorry. Here it is.

    And this

    we should be cautious about sticking our noses into another country to promote a political agenda of which we’re ignorant.

    would always be good advice to follow.

  • The view from the opposite angle might be helpful. We’re the single largest importer of Nigerian oil and Nigeria’s largest trading partner. They import twice as much from the Chinese as they do from us, however.

  • PD Shaw

    Elispes, Nigeria is probably the most important country in Sub-Saharran Africa, due to its resources, location and willingness to act in support of its neighboring countries. If the U.S. wants to prevent the region from devolving into a Hobbesian state, it needs to support such regional actors.

    None of those countries have an economy nearly the size of Nigeria; the closest is probably Libya and I hear its numbers need to be downgraded.

  • PD Shaw

    Elipses, am I to understand that you’ve come around to feeling that everything is fine in Libya, its economic output is trivial to the size of the U.S. economy?

    @Dave, we already have invested in strengthening Nigeria’s security and have trainers and assets on the ground. I’m also aware of potential local agendas; there is an election next year and the timing of these attacks could contribute to a civil war when one side loses. The government doesn’t need U.S. assistance to bang down the door of every Muslim home looking for missing girls. It does appear to need assistance in locating the terrorists.

  • If the U.S. wants to prevent the region from devolving into a Hobbesian state

    I think I’d insert the word “farther” into that sentence.

    There are major armed conflicts going on all over the continent at this point.

    Pat Lang has commented on military aid to Nigeria (he’s a former Army intelligence officer). He doesn’t think we have the intelligence assets in place to do much and developing them would be extremely expensive.

  • amspirnational

    Wasn’t it nice how Mrs. Obama wore a lapel pin to honor the large number of Nigerian school boys who were not kidnapped but outright assassinated by Boko Haram just a few mongths ago?

  • PD Shaw

    The number I’ve seen at Brookings was the U.S. had sixty people in Nigeria before the kidnappings, though I don’t know their actual assignments, but it appears that the U.S. is training Nigerians for counter-terrorism and nation-building purposes. They probably could use additional technological assets that the U.S. has, including across borders. I’m simply saying we should offer to help, not take the lead, and we were already helping in some fashion anyway.

  • Cstanley

    I don’t think it’s that big of a deal that she expressed an opinion, but the general hashtag phenomenon is annoying and the photos with handwritten signs with hashtags takes it to an even more idiotic level.

    It seems like hashtags have replaced “likes” on Facebook, which largely replaced bumper stickers. On the positive side though, at least up twinkles never caught on.

  • Andy

    I have mixed feelings about how the WH, the press and blogs have played this story. I think the First Lady’s probably should have used this to raise awareness about human trafficking in general and not focus so much on the specific circumstance of this abduction. The sad reality is that girls the world over, especially in Africa, are kidnapped or, more likely, sold by their families into what can only be called slavery. US intelligence and expertise might help Nigeria recover these girls, but what about the millions of others around the world?

  • Andy

    As for Twitter, is it my most important news source. Follow the right people and it is probably the single best source of current intelligence and information out there. I knew about the girls abduction the day after it happened – it wasn’t picked up in the Western media for another 10 days.

  • steve

    I have no problem with Mrs. Obama publicizing this. I have no problem with our offering technical advice or offering to sell them stuff. Beyond that, we should stay out of it. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, but I dont think that should stop us from pointing them out or talking about them.


  • ...

    No, PD, my meaning is that a great many of the states in Africa, including Libya, are shitholes. Nigeria declining beyond its already woeful state wouldn’t be that big a change.

  • ...

    Of course, Libya is a shithole that we helped create….

  • jan

    ” It is almost never wrong to speak up for what’s right. “

    I agree. And, that’s what a lot of people have genuinely felt about the absence of accountability, truth, and clarity in the Benghazi tragedy — from the absolute get go on 9/11/2012. Nonetheless, there is jeering and static from the dems with the formation of a more organized, centralized select committee to do just this.

    Like ice said, though, in his very first post, these are not “our” girls. And, had more been done earlier to denote Boko Haram as a terrorist group, like was encouraged by the CIA back in 2011, maybe events could have been stemmed, and these terrorists not emboldened to escalate their rampage, as they have done in kidnapping and killing so many people.

    However, like so many incidents in the past 6 years, we have become more of a “ponder what to do” kind of country rather than a “prevent and discourage acts of terrorism” leader — all part and parcel of the Obama Doctrine of “leading from behind” philosophy.

    As for Michelle gaining anything of merit with her hashtag strategy — it’s just an insipid media move, which has become popular among the Hollywood/government elites as a method of empathetic but hands off efforts. It kind of reminds me of “air kisses.”

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