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Few Good Options in the War on Terror

The West Africa theater in the War on Terror that we aren’t fighting heated up again yesterday as gunmen in northern Nigeria kidnapped and killed foreign workers at a construction site. Perhaps they couldn’t find any polio vaccine workers to kill and so did the next best thing. In any case, Nigeria’s ineffective government looks unable to contain the violence in the north.

Increasingly we are looking at a belt of instability that runs from Mali, Niger, and Nigeria in the west across to Sudan and Somalia in the east. Installing democracies, reforming corrupt governments, and promoting economic development—the typical tools of liberal foreign policy statecraft—will frankly not get much done on any quick timetable in this part of the world. Even our smartest and most peer-reviewed development PhDs have no clue what to do here, beyond collecting large salaries and consulting fees for the rest of their careers. But drone strikes and military sweeps, the preferred Jacksonian option, don’t hold out much hope either. Bombing the desert is one of life’s least rewarding military tasks.

We’ve got a problem here that neither liberal nor conservative boilerplate policy prescriptions can solve. Nor does a judicious mix—a few drones here, a few aid dollars there—look particularly hopeful. Some of this is going to have to be handled by selective “ignorage.” When you really can’t solve a problem you sometimes just have to learn to live with it, and a good part of what these pathetic losers are up to is of no concern to the wider world. When you get right down to it, Americans would strongly prefer that people everywhere lived in religiously tolerant democracies and that nobody anywhere ever mistreated a woman, stoned an adulteress, or hanged a homosexual. But it is equally true that the country isn’t prepared to launch into an eternal series of wars to save thieves from having their hands cut off in small African towns.

The art of policy is going to lie in figuring out what disagreeable activity we can safely ignore, and when these groups constitute a threat to us and our key allies (for example, in Europe). Essentially we are looking at a kind of containment: fanatical religious ideologies and screwball terrorists are here to stay, and we can’t root them out everywhere. But experience so far tells us that we can’t let them take state power even in a godforsaken backwater like Afghanistan (or Mali for that matter). When people cross the line, we have to knock them back, but we have to do it without getting involved in ten thousand brush-fire wars.

That’s going to be a tough policy to get America behind. Isolationists will want to do less; democracy advocates will want to do more. There are places in the world where the isolationists are right. I don’t see a strong case for continued long term U.S. involvement in Central Asia, for example, as the Afghan war winds down, and there are a lot of quarrels in central and southern Africa that have only a very limited call on American resources. There are places where the democracy advocates are right, where modest and sustainable U.S. efforts can help advance or stabilize democratic governments. But the fringes of the Sahara don’t neatly fit into either of these areas. The danger is too great for us to ignore the region completely, but with the possible exception of a handful of countries there’s not much to be hoped for anytime soon on the democracy and modernization front.

Getting the Europeans involved is a good thing; where possible, pulling the Chinese and Indians in wouldn’t hurt. A “come to Jesus meeting,” if you’ll pardon the expression, with some of our dear friends in the Gulf might have good results in reducing the flow of money to the bad guys and stepping up flows to the good ones.

But no matter how you slice it this is going to be a problem. Those of us outside the administration criticizing it need to keep in mind that none of the real options at this point are very attractive.

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