Using military assets to rescue the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria has become the crie du jour among the broader policy community. Admittedly, I am sympathetic as well to using tools in the American arsenal, although under no circumstances should that include boots on the ground: Nigeria is a corrupt morass and a major part of the story there—that the first lady of Nigeria at first denied the kidnapping and then targeted and had arrested family members of the kidnapped girls, accusing them of manufacturing the crisis to embarrass her husband—hasn’t fully made it into the Western press.
Nevertheless, if U.S. drones can survey territory not easily accessible and locate the girls or their captors, and if that enables the ability of Nigerian Special Forces to rescue them, it’s an excellent use of U.S. resources. If Ospreys are needed to ferry troops or provide transport, perhaps that further involvement would be worth it. The goodwill brokered by enabling such a rescue against a group so roundly hated in Nigeria and more broadly in Africa would be a great investment.
Faced with criticism regarding how the United States distributes and spends foreign aid, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) often complain that the United States spends just a tiny proportion of its budget on foreign assistance, and that USAID should actually have a larger budget. A successful rescue of the school girls in Nigeria, however, could bring greater benefit to America’s image than all the money the State Department has spent in Nigeria over the past two decades.
When it comes to goodwill and effectiveness, such reality is the rule rather than the exception. The U.S. military is the largest and most effective humanitarian organization in the world. Nation-building should not be its mission—much of what the public complains about in Iraq and Afghanistan are actually the result of ill-advised nation-building and mission creep, not the military’s initial goals—but the military has often been used in rescues and emergency relief. The United States received tremendous goodwill for its emergency relief in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Once again, the weeks of work the U.S. Navy and Marines did trumped decades of U.S. foreign assistance to countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The Navy was likewise on the front lines of operations in the wake of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake. Again, in each instance, the military exercised a capability neither the United Nations nor any NGO has, and the help offered by the military was far more effective and created greater goodwill than decades of work by the State Department and USAID. The video of rescues of Iranian fisherman likewise are a huge boon to the image of America.
How ironic it is that the Obama administration wants to trim the Marine Expeditionary Units and the Carrier Strike Groups so responsible for these successes, or that it seems to want to double down on an aid agency that has decades of expensive failure to its name. Perhaps it is time to value and enhance the capability of the military to do work that so promotes pro-American sentiment rather than throw good money after bad.