The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram pledging allegiance, at least in theory, to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) should lead to a comparison of efforts in the Middle East and Western Africa regions to fight these threats. Boko Haram and ISIS are some of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world but are both largely threats to their respective regions. Although ISIS has grabbed world attention, using the heinous tactics of beheadings and enslavement and aided by the spotlight of Western media and government hysteria, Boko Haram had earlier pioneered such tactics of intimidation. And despite ISIS having pledged regional Islamist affiliates in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and now likely Nigeria, all of these already existing Islamists are largely trying to milk the ISIS connection for propaganda purposes to attract more funding and fighters. Thus, ISIS remains largely a threat to Iraq and Syria.
Yet it is striking that the U.S. response has been very different against ISIS holding parts of Iraq and Syria versus Boko Haram holding part of northeastern Nigeria. When ISIS started taking over parts of Iraq, the United States quickly started bombing the group, which had theretofore, unlike al Qaeda, focused on fighting regional security forces (the "near enemy") to acquire territory to establish Islamist rule. Once the United States started bombing, ISIS realized, as did al Qaeda long ago, that many recruits and much funding could be attracted by drawing the "far enemy" deeper into a quagmire. When Western governments and media became overwrought by the ISIS’s beheadings, leading to more Western military activity, the recruiting and funding stream became a flood of riches for the group.
Because of the U.S. government’s frantic response to ISIS, local Middle East allies – such as Turkey, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Gulf states – have sent a few aircraft but have not offered what has been lacking in the fight against ISIS: much-needed regional ground forces to find and root out ISIS. The worst offender is NATO ally Turkey, which has demanded that the United States set up a no-fly zone over its territory for protection but has not offered to send its large and well equipped army to fight ISIS, which is menacing its border. But why should all of these nearby U.S. allies send troops when they expect that the United States will eventually bail them out, as it always seems to by taking matters into its own hands militarily.
In contrast, in West Africa, which until very recently the United States cared little about, oil-rich Nigeria is being bailed out by four poorer countries (compared to Nigeria and also to the Middle Eastern countries) – Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin. Nigeria’s military has been slow to react to Boko Haram’s holding of its territory and incompetent in beating it back. These countries have mobilized thousands of forces to fight Boko Haram, have had some successes, and have even motivated the Nigerian military to fight better against the insurgents. In contrast to the Middle East, Africans know that the United States will not ride to the rescue and that they need to be more self-sufficient against a regional threat. The United States has sent only some instructors to train the militaries of these nations. The model for this West African coalition is a similar one earlier cobbled together in East Africa – that of Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi – to fight another regional terrorist threat, al-Shabab in Somalia.
But why the difference in U.S. response? Both Nigeria and Iraq have substantial oil fields, but the United States doesn’t really buy that much oil from either country. And contrary to popular belief, the United States only gets about 20 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf. Could it be that as policeman of a world empire of sorts, the United States wants to have its finger on the Persian Gulf, a major supplier of oil to the world market? Probably. I say this because, in my book, No War for Oil: US Dependency and the Middle East, I concluded that simply buying the oil – even if the price goes up due to war, crisis, etc. in the region – is cheaper than essentially stealing it at gunpoint by stationing military forces all over the region and intervening profligately in its affairs – for example, sending forces into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. So the more imperial reason seems more plausible than the need to merely "protect vital oil supplies."
Another imperial reason – U.S. prestige – may also be contributing to this divergence of policy. When then-President George W. Bush was intent on invading Iraq for no good reason, Colin Powell, his Secretary of State, warned him "if you break it, you’ve bought it." After the United States "liberated" Iraq into chaos and indirectly caused, in response to that invasion, what became ISIS, the U.S. government cannot be seen to "lose" Iraq to that same group. It would make a superpower look bad. In contrast, the United States didn’t invade Nigeria (at least not yet) and so has no legacy to uphold there.
The main thing that a comparison of the fight against ISIS and Boko Haram, both regional threats in oil producing areas, should tell us: If foreign countries know that the U.S. superpower will save the day, they understandably have little incentive to put out much of an effort. A further lesson from the master of diplomacy in the 19th century, the conservative Otto von Bismarck, has gone unlearned by the United States: when your enemies are fighting each other – the radical Sunni ISIS Islamists versus Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq and against the dictatorial Assad regime in Syria – stay out of the fight.