The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.
However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.
Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:
Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.
So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.
A world leader holding up a sign asking someone to please do something is an unnecessary, if implicit, admission of the intent to do nothing. This has been a running complaint of Western leaders, especially Barack Obama, of late. He has taken to declaring he wouldn’t use force without even being asked. It just became second nature for the president to insist that there wasn’t much to be done.
Although it is an imperfect analogy, it’s striking to contrast this with Ken Adelman’s piece at Politico about Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. It was derided, of course, as “star wars” by its critics and no one was sure it could even be done. But Adelman, who traveled with Reagan to his famous Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, notes that the Soviet leader was worried enough about SDI that he made it the focus of that meeting. He would give Reagan the dramatic nuclear cuts he wanted, but the deal had to include getting rid of SDI:
Reagan was furious with Gorbachev’s last-minute qualification. And he would not compromise on SDI, no matter the incentives. With all that we have achieved, he in essence told his Soviet counterpart, you throw in this roadblock and everything’s out the window. There’s absolutely no way we will give up research to find a defensive weapon against nuclear missiles.
“Am I wrong?” the president then scribbled on a note to George Schultz, his secretary of state. “No,” was the reply, whispered in his ear. “You are right.”
Adelman notes that the meeting was not considered a success because the two sides didn’t come to an agreement. But it was a success. SDI didn’t bring down the Soviet Union, but it played a role by accelerating Soviet reforms that the system could not, in the end, handle. Adelman quotes Margaret Thatcher as writing in her memoirs that Gorbachev was “so alarmed” by SDI that it made Reagan’s decision on SDI the “single most important of his presidency.”
Development of a missile shield is not the same as deploying forces in harm’s way, of course. But the point is less about the action taken than the willingness to make your enemies believe you’re capable of taking action. I’m reminded of a different Thatcher quote from another edition of her memoirs, when discussing members of her own party who behave as though they’ve already lost to the other side. “Retreat as a tactic is sometimes necessary; retreat as a settled policy eats at the soul.”
Cameron–and other Western leaders, including Obama–would do well to take that to heart. They should stop feeling so helpless, because they aren’t. But at the very least, they should stop acting so helpless.