Belmont Club

Hippocritic Oath: Above All Do No Haram

Churchill said it himself, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” War, if it comes, should recognized by its unavoidability. But in the matter of negotiations there’s jaw and there’s jaw. For example, the lower form of jaw consists in talking to one’s adversaries, while a higher form of jaw consists in sanctioning and pressuring them. Both are part of the continuum of diplomacy.  This distinction is expressed in the varying levels of status with which foreign groups are regarded.

Recently the Daily Beast noted that Hillary Clinton’s state department resisted labeling the Boko Haram a terrorist organization for years. “Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department repeatedly declined to fully go after the terror group responsible for kidnapping hundreds of girls.”

The State Department under Hillary Clinton fought hard against placing the al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram on its official list of foreign terrorist organizations for two years. And now, lawmakers and former U.S. officials are saying that the decision may have hampered the American government’s ability to confront the Nigerian group that shocked the world by abducting hundreds of innocent girls.

In truth there were a lot of people in Boko Haram’s corner, not just Hillary, though they’ll now deny it. For example, had a now deleted petition not to declare Boko Haram a terrorist organization. The petition read in part:

Petition to to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama and Members of Congress.

We urge you not to support the formal designation of Boko Haram in Nigeria as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO). Such a move would be a counterproductive mistake with far-reaching negative consequences for both Americans and Nigerians.”

One cannot think MoveOn deleted the petition because they were proud of it.  But in fairness, they were not alone in their support of Boko either. The existence of a pressure group that saw the Boko Haram as a group you could negotiate with is not in doubt. Think Progress in this apologia for Hillary admits it.

But there were multiple valid reasons for the State Department to disagree with the Justice Department and other agencies dealing with counterterrorism — such as the FBI and CIA — who urged State to place Boko Haram on the Foreign Terrorists Organization (FTO) list. “Designation is an important tool, it’s not the only tool,” a former State Department official told the Beast. “There are a lot of other things you can do in counterterrorism that doesn’t require a designation.” This includes boosting development aid to undercut the causes of unrest and deploying the FBI to assist in tracking down Boko Haram, both of which the U.S. actually did.

In addition, Clinton didn’t act in a vacuum to determine not to designate Boko Haram back in 2011. Scholars on Twitter who focus on the region, terrorism broadly, and Islamist groups in particular were quick to point out that not only were there few benefits and many possible costs to designation, many of them had argued against listing Boko Haram several years ago. In a letter to the State Department dated May 2012, twenty prominent African studies scholars wrote Clinton to implore her to hold off on placing Boko Haram on the FTO list. Acknowledging the violence Boko Haram had perpetrated, the academics argued that “an FTO designation would internationalize Boko Haram, legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services, limit the State Department’s latitude in shaping a long term strategy, and undermine the U.S. Government’s ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region.”

Note that “the Justice Department and other agencies dealing with counterterrorism — such as the FBI and CIA — … urged State to place Boko Haram on the Foreign Terrorists Organization (FTO) list”, but State didn’t listen, preferring to hearken to “scholars on Twitter” and “African studies” experts.

Even today Boko Haram is not without its defenders. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia “the top religious authority in the birthplace of Islam, has condemned Nigeria’s Boko Haram as a group ‘set up to smear the image of Islam’ and condemned its kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls.”

“This is a group that has been set up to smear the image of Islam and must be offered advice, shown their wrong path and be made to reject it,” he told the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat in an interview published on Friday.

“These groups are not on the right path because Islam is against kidnapping, killing and aggression,” he said. “Marrying kidnapped girls is not permitted.”

The mounting hideousness of Boko Haram eventually drove the State Deparment to declare it a terror organization  in November of 2013, after John Kerry took over.

When is jaw-jaw, or a particular form of jaw-jaw, better than war-war?  The test is usually empirical. Negotiations are fruitful for as long as they lead to some palpable result. Like medication, you should discontinue it when it makes you sicker. Negotiations can wind up paying bad guys to stay bad. Would you talk to them if they were good guys? The West’s obsession with social mores can subsidize social morays. But the since Boko Haram was actually growing in power from armaments obtained from post-Khadaffy Libya why on earth should Hillary think it would become more amenable to jaw-jaw in the face of its growing virulence?

It is scarcely credible to think Hillary was persuaded by these Twitter and African studies scholars in the face of objections from the counter-terror folks. The persuasion was not intellectual. The probable reason she opted for softly-softly is that jaw-jaw is good business.

Negotiating confers two political benefits. The negotiators are perceived to be doing something, even if that something hardly amounts to anything and it gives everyone at the table access to a great big pile of cash. Money — or the denial of money — is the engine of the jaw-jaw process, which really ought to be called the “kaching-kaching” process.

The numbers of consultants, hired experts and rapporteurs grow almost as rapidly as the “confidence building measures” they push. Show me a disaster and I’ll show you a bonanza. When the Tamil Tigers were surrounded by the Sri Lankan military and on the verge of annihilation one Western diplomat reportedly warned Colombo: “if you defeat them, then who will you negotiate with?”

Good point. Once the negotiations stop so does the gravy train.  Look at Palestine. It’s been bad for the Palestinians but entire generations of UN bureaucrats have made a career of out of it.

The Boko Haram remained, in spite of its almost comic book brutality, one of America’s viable “partners for peace”. So it remained until its actions became so reprehensible that there was no other viable political course than to call them what they were: a low-down dirty bunch of terrorist murderers. Think Progress’ apologia for Hillary Clinton only succeeds in documenting who pushed the Boko in the face of clear objections from law enforcement and counter-terror organizations.

If Clinton’s exercise of authority has consequences then her choices on Boko had consequences. Hillary endorsed “reset” with Russa; refused to name Boko Haram a terror organization and believed a video was responsible for the attack on a US Consulate in Benghazi.  Do we dismiss these all as a case of ‘so what’?  With great power comes great responsibility. You can’t say, while nations break up and things burn and people die: “what difference, at this point, does it make?”

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