The Magazine

All Tweet, No Action

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"Nigerian girls inspire international action,” reads the headline on the front page of the May 7 Washington Post. But nowhere in the story will you learn of any action actually being taken to rescue the 276 Nigerian girls abducted over three weeks ago by the Islamic terror group Boko Haram. You find reports of “an international uproar” and “a growing outcry,” of comments by President Barack Obama and phone calls by Secretary of State John Kerry, of warnings by U.N. officials, of a letter from all 20 female U.S. senators, which, according to one signer, “is the beginning of sending a very powerful signal,” and of possible preparations for a “team of specialists” to possibly go to Nigeria to possibly help the Nigerian government possibly do something.

In sum, you find what you so often find when you observe modern liberalism: “the sorry spectacle of justice without a sword or of justice unable to use the sword.”

The plight of the Nigerian girls also inspired former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to take “action,” in the form of a much-reported tweet:

Access to education is a basic right & an unconscionable reason to target innocent girls. We must stand up to terrorism. #BringBackOurGirls

Let us pause to note the near-perfection of the “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag. “Our Girls” nicely captures modern liberalism’s cloying faux-universalism. “Bring Back” epitomizes the pseudo-tough use of the imperative voice—but with no assumption of responsibility for action by the speaker. The tweet commands, “We must stand up to terrorism.” But does the former secretary of state have any actual suggestion for action? Or are we to stand up for a while, and then sit back down?

After all, as the intrepid Josh Rogin reported in the Daily Beast:

What Clinton didn’t mention was that her own State Department refused to place Boko Haram on the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2011, after the group bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja. The refusal came despite the urging of the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and over a dozen Senators and Congressmen.

“The one thing she could have done, the one tool she had at her disposal, she didn’t use. And nobody can say she wasn’t urged to do it. It’s gross hypocrisy,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in the debate. “The FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department really wanted Boko Haram designated, they wanted the authorities that would provide to go after them, and they voiced that repeatedly to elected officials.”

In May 2012, then-Justice Department official Lisa Monaco (now at the White House) wrote to the State Department to urge Clinton to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. The following month, Gen. Carter Ham, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, said that Boko Haram provided a “safe haven” for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and was likely sharing explosives and funds with the group. And yet, Hillary Clinton’s State Department still declined to place Boko Haram on its official terrorist roster.

It’s not entirely clear how much difference being placed on the terrorist list would have made. But, as Rogin explains,

Being placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations allows U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to use certain tools and authorities, including several found in the Patriot Act. The designation makes it illegal for any U.S. entities to do business with the group in question. It cuts off access to the U.S. financial system for the organization and anyone associating with it. And the designation also serves to stigmatize and isolate foreign organizations by encouraging other nations to take similar measures. .  .  . 

In the House, leading intelligence minded lawmakers wrote letter after letter to Clinton urging her to designate Boko Haram as terrorists. The effort in the House was led by then-Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King and Peter Meehan, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. Meehan and his Democratic counterpart Jackie Speier put out a lengthy report in 2011 laying out the evidentiary basis for naming Boko Haram a terrorist organization, including the group’s ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and to Somalia’s al-Shabab terrorist organization.

Secretary of State John Kerry eventually listed Boko Haram as a terrorist organization in 2013. But that is about all the action the Obama administration took. Indeed, the administration hasn’t pushed to add Boko Haram to the U.N. Security Council’s al Qaeda sanctions list. One imagines the administration may do so now.

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