TIME foreign affairs

The Nigerian Schoolgirl Kidnappings Are None of Our Business

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the kidnapped school girls by the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram, during a press availability at the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, May 8, 2014. SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

The goal of U.S. foreign policy should always be tightly tied to protecting American lives, interests and property.

“It’s a heartbreaking situation, outrageous situation,” said President Barack Obama, referring to the kidnapping of more than 250 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the radical terrorist group Boko Haram.

That’s absolutely true, but why in the world is Obama directly involving the U.S.—“we’ve already sent…a combination of military, law enforcement, and other agencies”–in the search for the girls, who are reportedly being sold into slavery?

The goal of our foreign policy, and especially interventions involving soldiers, should always be tightly tied to protecting American lives, interests and property. If the past dozen years and actions of the two most recent presidents should have taught us anything, it’s that the U.S. is not particularly adept at solving its own domestic problems, much less those in faraway lands. That’s the reason why Gallup reports a 40-year low in trust in Washington’s foreign policy, with just 49 percent of Americans saying they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the government’s ability to handle international problems.

As usual, the Obama White House hasn’t been fully forthcoming with details about the American intervention—it’s unclear how many soldiers have been dispatched or whether the Nigerian government has even officially signed off on U.S. involvement—but the president has left no doubt about his priorities. “As a father of two girls, I can’t imagine what their parents are going through,” he told the press. “We’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this.”

As a matter of fact, the U.S. does not have to rid the world of Boko Haram, no matter how disturbing and repellent its actions are. As with the once-fashionable hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (remember that?), this is a battle to be fought by the nations directly affected, with help from regional and transnational bodies such as the UN. Until Boko Haram shows itself ready, willing and able to do real damage to America, its destruction should not be our goal. There is simply too much awfulness going on in all the corners of the world for the U.S. to wade into such situations.

For virtually the entirety of the 21st century, the U.S. has racked up a perfectly miserable record in bringing stability and calm to countries roiled by terrorists and civil war. Even supporters of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars don’t claim the U.S. left those countries better off. Obama’s unilateral and unconstitutional decision to wage war in Libya didn’t just result in the death of U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi, it has created a situation where “so many jihadists are flocking to Libya, it’s becoming ‘Scumbag Woodstock.’”

Obviously, any American presence and action in Nigeria will be on a vastly smaller level, but there’s no reason to expect it to be any more successful (indeed, 100 U.S. special forces are part of the hunt for Kony). But involving ourselves in Nigeria will create yet one more distraction for a government that hasn’t figured out how to deal with far more consequential situations involving Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Russia and Venezuela, not to mention myriad domestic problems.

At least since the end of World War II, the U.S. has all too often thought of itself as the world’s policeman, a sort of beat cop who can fix all the big and small ills of the planet. How many more times must we be humbled before realizing that the world is beyond such simple surgical fixes? And, that in trying to take care of every heartbreaking, outrageous situation such as the one in Nigeria, we are likely as not both to fail and to compound the misery of this world.

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