by J.R. Bullington
The people of Niger are more than 90% Muslim, for the most part fervently so. Islam is a vital part of their daily lives, in a way that Christianity used to be in the West but is no longer for most people. While the Government of Niger is constitutionally secular, and small animist and Christian minorities are well tolerated, Niger is a very Islamic country, to an even greater degree than the countries of Europe and America were effectively if not officially Christian in the mid-19th Century.
Moreover, the people of Niger are wretchedly poor, in a way that is quite literally unimaginable for most Americans. As measured by the United Nations Development Program, this is the second poorest country in the world, ahead only of war-ravaged Sierra Leone and well behind countries such as Afghanistan. Worse, the standard of living for most Nigeriens, according to the World Bank, has been in decline for more than three decades. This is because of rapid population growth, continuing desertification, recurrent bouts of political instability that have undermined development efforts and international support, and a host of other factors.
And finally, Niger is located in a very tough global neighborhood. Four of the seven states on its borders — Algeria, Libya, Chad and Nigeria — are poster countries for various sorts of terrorism, anti-Americanism, political and religious extremism, and bloody ethnic warfare. And those borders are highly porous.
Doesn’t all this make Niger a hotbed for international terrorism and a very dangerous place for Americans to be these days?
No, it does not.
Since September 11, some 400 Americans — Peace Corps Volunteers, Embassy staff, non-governmental organization employees (CARE, CRS, etc.), and missionaries — have continued to live and work throughout the country without serious incident or threat. There have been no anti-American demonstrations and no hostile media campaigns. Many Nigeriens, from President Tandja to ordinary villagers, have expressed their condolences and have spoken out against terrorism and Islamic extremism. Within its limited means, the Government has been exemplary in responding to our security concerns and in pro-actively discouraging anti-American manifestations or any type of violence.
I believe that Peace Corps Volunteers living in Nigerien villages are at least as safe from terrorism as they would be in the US, and probably safer.
Why is this the case?First, the Government and the vast majority of the people, while very religious in outlook, are not Islamic extremists. They are proud of Niger’s record of religious tolerance and tend to see Osama bin Laden and his followers as perverting Islam. Moreover, unlike most of its neighbors, Niger does not have a tradition of terrorism or serious religious or ethnic conflict, and even its political turbulence has not involved widespread violence. The Sahara Desert provides considerable (though not total) isolation from the turmoil in Algeria, Libya and Chad. The Islamic extremism and communal violence in northern Nigeria are far closer to Niger’s populated heartland; but thus far spillover has been minimal. And Nigerien leaders generally want a closer and more cooperative relationship with the US (especially including increased aid and investment), not confrontation. They are concerned about conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but correctly see them as having little to do with Niger.
Another reason for Niger’s relative tranquility in the current storm, I’m convinced, is that 39 years of continuous Peace Corps presence here has built a reservoir of good will toward America and Americans that makes Nigeriens less susceptible than they might otherwise be to the anti-American message of the extremists. It is far easier to induce people to hate an abstraction, an ugly American stereotype, than to hate the friendly young man who lives in your village or the dedicated young woman who taught you English. In addition to those whose lives are touched by the current Volunteers, I’m constantly meeting senior-level Nigeriens who say, “Oh, Peace Corps! Do you know X?” (who turns out to be a Volunteer from many years ago who lived in their village or taught in their school). This effect can’t be quantified, but it’s real.
All this being said, we must continue to watch the situation closely. There are a few Islamic extremists in Niger, and their number may well be growing. Moreover, stability in such a poor country as this is inherently fragile. Ethnically, culturally and economically, eastern Niger is essentially an extension of northern Nigeria, and a spillover of the burgeoning Islamic extremism and communal violence that plague that region is a real possibility. We must remain vigilant, keep a low profile, and take measures to reduce our risks. The situation could change rapidly.
For now, however, I’m comfortable with continuing the Peace Corps program in Niger, and even expanding it if Washington will provide the additional resources I’ve been requesting.
American Aid and the War on Terrorism
Many pundits and academics have been saying that military action against terrorism, while perhaps justified in response to the 9/11 attacks, fails to address its “root causes,” which are usually identified as poverty and the alienation and rage it produces. Therefore, the argument goes, we should greatly increase our foreign aid program to fight terrorism.
From my perspective in Niger, this reasoning is largely nonsense, even if the conclusion has considerable merit. If poverty causes terrorism, Niger would surely be an ideal incubator for its production. And yet, there is no terrorism here, and not a single Nigerien has been identified as a member of Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.
Neither the millionaire Osama bin Laden and his middle-class lieutenants nor most of their agents (including the 19 suicide bombers of 9/11) are products of poverty. They are driven primarily by religious zealotry, of the same sort that launched crusades, conducted inquisitions and burned witches. They are evil, and they are unlikely to be dissuaded from their evil ways by increases in US aid programs or changes in US policies short of our becoming an Islamic republic. As Charles Krauthammer aptly put it, “This kind of fury and fanaticism is unappeasable. It knows no social, economic or political solution.”
Since we can’t change their beliefs and intent, we must destroy the terrorists’ capacity to do us harm. The quickest, most direct way of accomplishing that is to destroy them and those that harbor them by military action.
Nonetheless, it is also true that terrorists and the religious and other extremists who support them thrive best in failed and failing states where poverty and chaos reign. They feed on poverty and exploit it for their own ends. Thus, it is certainly in our interest, and it should be an important element in the war on terrorism, to prevent other countries from becoming future Afghanistans. A substantial increase in American aid, especially to poor Islamic countries such as Niger (where the USAID mission was closed five years ago), would be an important tool to help achieve that objective.
With the end of the Cold War, foreign aid as an instrument of US foreign policy diminished rapidly, and has now almost disappeared. During the time of the Marshall Plan, we spent more than two percent of our GDP on foreign aid, and continued spending decreasing but still very substantial amounts until the 1980s. In view of our victory in the Cold War, to which this aid contributed significantly, few would argue that this was a bad investment. Yet today, we spend less than one-tenth of one percent of our GDP on foreign aid, and most of that goes to just two countries, Israel and Egypt.
Sharing a portion of our great wealth with the world’s poorest people has been and remains an important American value, and we should surely give at least some foreign aid on moral grounds alone. However, as my former boss Henry Kissinger has eloquently argued, American engagements abroad can be effective and sustained only if they are consistent with both our values and our interests. Thus, it is not surprising that foreign aid withered after the USSR’s collapse made containing the global communist threat no longer relevant.
Now, with the global terrorist threat, we once again have a strategic interest in providing foreign aid as well as the charitable impulse to do so. The Agency for International Development should be given a new mandate, consistent with the war on terrorism, and substantially increased resources. We would then be able not only to provide increased assistance to countries like Niger but also to leverage this renewed US leadership in aiding poor countries to achieve major increases in European and Japanese contributions as well. The resulting long-term reduction in the poverty and instability on which terrorism and extremism feed would be an important contribution to victory.
Peace Corps was born and flourished in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. President Kennedy saw that in addition to confronting communism militarily when necessary, we also needed to address its challenge for the hearts and minds of people in poor countries who did not enjoy our freedom and prosperity and had no understanding (or wrong understanding) of Americans and the ideals we embrace.
Kennedy’s vision for Peace Corps was not as an instrument to achieve short-term foreign policy objectives but as a global showcase of American ideals in action that would at the same time productively engage the enthusiasm of Americans, especially American youth, to serve their country through service to others. It was to be an instrument not only to promote economic development but also to promote better mutual understanding between Americans and people in poor countries.
As an economic development agency, Peace Corps plays a limited but significant role. Its small, village-level projects have a much greater development bang for the foreign aid buck than do the much larger-scale projects of USAID, the World Bank, and other donors. Peace Corps’ total budget last year was $265 million, a sum that could be lost as a rounding error in the federal budget. With its low cost, relative efficiency and reliance on voluntarism, it is an excellent example of a foreign engagement informed by “compassionate conservatism.”
Beyond its modest impact on reducing global poverty, Peace Corps contributes directly to a more positive image of America among people for whom Americans are often no more than a grotesque caricature generated by Hollywood and hostile propaganda. It also gives a substantial number of Americans a better understanding of countries that few could find on a map but which, as we recently learned with Afghanistan, can suddenly become quite important to our interests. And it is a marvelous training opportunity for young Americans embarking on international careers. In 1999, for example, 40% of new Foreign Service Officers had Peace Corps experience.
Just as Peace Corps showcased American values and won friends during the Cold War era, it can also contribute to our long-term success in the war on terrorism. While it should not be explicitly or organizationally linked to the war effort, the current international context offers an unparalleled opportunity for its modernization, expansion and rejuvenation. I believe Americans would be highly responsive to an articulate call for commitment to international volunteer work as a way of serving their country in today’s challenging world.
WHAM and the War on Terrorism
In the Vietnam War, it was called “winning hearts and minds,” sometimes reduced to the acronym WHAM and amplified by wags with the cynical observation that “If you seize him by the testicles, his heart and mind will surely follow.”
The war on terrorism is also a war of ideas. By whatever name, it must also have a robust psywar/propaganda/public diplomacy element.
In this battle for public opinion in the Islamic world, we are surely not winning. We are barely competing. Even relatively friendly media tend to portray the war not as between good and evil but between moral equivalents. Here in Niger and other Muslim countries, considerable credence is given to allegations that the US is deliberately bombing civilians and conducting a war not against terrorism but against Islam.
This is not to say that Islamic extremism is winning anything like a majority of Muslim hearts and minds. Certainly that is not the case in Niger. The radical Islamists remain a minority, but over the past few years they have been an alarmingly growing minority in some areas. In northern Nigeria, they may well be a majority. We ignore at our peril the hate-America viewpoint they promote.
In recent years, our weapons for fighting the battle for public opinion have been laid aside or allowed to deteriorate. The principal Cold War instrument for telling America’s story abroad, the US Information Agency, was subjected to a series of budget cuts and finally eliminated as a separate agency by a strange-bedfellow coalition of Senator Jesse Helms and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. While the State Department picked up its functions, in principle not a bad idea, in practice focus was lost and resources continued to dwindle. Until reversed this year under Colin Powell’s leadership, the State Department’s budget was also in long-term, sharp decline. This resulted in the closure of dozens of overseas diplomatic, consular and information posts and starvation funding for the rest, drastically reducing our interaction with local leaders and opinion-makers. The Voice of America and cultural exchange programs have also languished.
As with the reductions in the foreign aid budget, this was understandable (although shortsighted) in the context of the Cold War’s end. Now, however, these trends must be reversed. We badly need to reinforce our ability to fight and win the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
Won’t all of this cost lots of money?
Not really. Perhaps $8-10 billion to double the size of our current foreign aid program; $200 million to double the size of the Peace Corps; and $2-3 billion to reopen critical Foreign Service posts in Muslim countries and greatly amplify our public diplomacy voice.
This is more than chump change, but it’s very modest compared to the military costs of prolonging the war, a likely result of failing to make such expenditures. And it represents a small insurance premium compared to the losses we would suffer if the terrorists and their extremist supporters continue to multiply.