Obama goes quiet on Boko Haram

Brian Hughes,  Washington Examiner

It started with a groundswell of support and an appeal to “Bring Back Our Girls.”

Ten months later, with most of those Nigerian schoolgirls no closer to being home, the White House rarely invokes the mounting atrocities committed by Boko Haram.

As President Obama devotes more time to confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — he requested formal war powers on Wednesday — and as his administration increasingly focuses on the bloodshed in Ukraine, the rising body count in Nigeria has become just a passing reference.

Unlike the recent Paris terrorist attacks, Boko Haram wasn’t mentioned in Obama’s State of the Union address last month.

And when pressed by reporters, the White House offers little new on what the administration is doing to stop the creation of a full Islamic State in Nigeria.

“It continues to be a situation that we’re concerned about here,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted Wednesday, when asked if Obama addressed the matter during a meeting Tuesday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But that answer has proven insufficient for human rights observers and even some members of the president’s own party.

“I think there’s a general frustration among [CBC] members in particular that not enough is being said to remind people of what is happening; nobody seems to be talking about Boko Haram these days — and that includes the White House,” said a senior aide for one of the Democratic lawmakers who met with Obama this week.

The terrorist group’s grip on power has only strengthened since more than 270 girls were kidnapped in April from a Chibok boarding school in Nigeria. Similar kidnappings have multiplied, and an estimated 10,000 people have died during the past year alone, including 2,000 civilians during a single massacre in January.

The Obama administration has offered counterterrorism assistance to the Nigerian government, but military training has been cut off amid a dispute over human rights violations by the African nation’s security forces. The Nigerian government continues to accuse the Obama administration of offering too little support, pointing to its refusal to accommodate a recent request for heavy weaponry.

Further complicating the crisis, national elections originally scheduled in Nigeria for Saturday have been postponed until the end of March over security concerns tied to Boko Haram.

The Obama administration was mocked by some for engaging in so-called Twitter diplomacy. In May, first lady Michelle Obama, along with a raft of celebrities, posted selfies while holding handwritten signs reading “#BringBackOurGirls.” Critics charged the Obamas with offering superficial support and giving the terrorist group free publicity.

Whatever the reason, the president is no longer using his bully pulpit to keep the focus on Boko Haram, analysts said.

“The thing about the kidnappings is that it’s ubiquitous and ongoing. Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped since Chibok,” John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Examiner.

“Something happens and it becomes all-consuming — and a week later, it’s gone,” he added on the shifting White House PR strategy for dealing with Boko Haram.

The White House recently tried to explain how Obama views the Boko Haram threat, as compared to the Islamic State and other national security crises, suggesting that the president’s strategy was not a sign of apathy.

“The way that the president views these kinds of things is through the prism of what’s best for American national security and our security interests around the globe,” Earnest explained last week. “That … is how we evaluate the kinds of steps that we need to take — whether it’s direct military intervention or otherwise — to try to help these countries counter these extremists that are operating in their country.”

However, Obama has placed the blame on the Nigerian government for not doing more to combat the terrorist organization.

“Boko Haram is a radical, violent, terrible, extremist organization in Nigeria,” Obama said during a recent YouTube interview held at the White House, one of the few times he has been asked recently to speak about the threat.

“What we try to do is help the Nigerian government to deal with the problem,” he added. “The Nigerian [government] has not been as effective as it needs to be in not only finding the girls but also in stopping this extremist organization from operating inside their territory.”

Analysts said Obama treats Boko Haram differently from the Islamic State, likely because the African group has yet to threaten Americans directly.

The Islamic State “has murdered American citizens; it attracts a certain number of foreign fighters,” Campbell said. “Boko Haram has not attacked Americans or American facilities.”

However, there is a growing concern in Washington circles about the national security repercussions if Boko Haram’s rise is not impeded.

And other White House allies worried about the message Obama was sending to the public.

“This has to be about more than a hashtag,” said the senior Democratic aide. “What are we doing right now? I don’t think a whole lot of people really know the answer.”

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