It is easy to ignore the recent story of four U.S. servicemen killed in Niger, the giant state in central Africa, because the place is so remote and the circumstances still so murky. That would be a mistake. Niger highlights a much larger problem — just how foolish, how flat-out dumb President Donald Trump is behaving.
Trump is a person who doesn’t connect dots — even when they’re big, fat polka dots that are hard to miss. Rather, he thinks inside narrow little boxes built from his own simplistic impulses and applause lines — and that tendency is leading us into a web of contradictions abroad. Niger is a perfect example.
I know something about Niger because I did a documentary there last year for National Geographic’s “Years of Living Dangerously” climate series and wrote several columns about it for The New York Times. To understand why groups affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaida are popping up in that region of central Africa, you have to connect a lot of dots and recognize the linkages between a number of different problems — not just say, in effect: There are bad guys there. I will call “my generals.” They will kill them. I will take credit.
As defense systems expert Lin Wells once put it: To ameliorate problems in places like Niger, you must never think in the box. You must never think out of the box. “You must always think without a box.”
Why? Because what is destabilizing all of these countries in the Sahel region of Africa and spawning terrorist groups is a cocktail of climate change, desertification — as the Sahara steadily creeps south — population explosions and misgovernance.
Desertification is the trigger, and climate change and population explosions are the amplifiers. The result is a widening collapse of small-scale farming, the foundation of societies all over Africa. And that collapse is leading to a rising tide of “economic migrants, interethnic conflicts and extremism,” Monique Barbut, who heads the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification and guided me in Niger, explained.
A few numbers: Niger, with rampant poverty and poor access to contraception, has one the highest birthrates in the world: 7.6 children per woman. I met a man there who boasted of 17 kids. Neighboring Nigeria is growing so fast it will replace the U.S. as the third-most-populous country in the world by 2050. Nigeria is a third bigger than Texas.
Meanwhile, climate change in the region is so severe that nearby Senegal’s national weather bureau says that from 1950 to 2015, the average temperature there rose two degrees Celsius and the average annual rainfall declined by about 2 inches. The Paris climate accord was designed to keep global average temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100.
In other words, parts of sub-Saharan Africa are already at heat levels that Paris was supposed to prevent by the end of the century — and the region is heading for a 4-degree rise, which will lead to the collapse of even more small farms and lead to a mad scramble of refugees toward Europe, competition for food and more unemployed males ready to join ISIS for $50 a month.
Barbut, as I reported, reinforced her point by showing me three maps of Africa with dots concentrated in the middle of the continent. Map No. 1: the most vulnerable regions of desertification in 2008. Map No. 2: conflicts and food riots in 2007 and 2008. Map No. 3: terrorist attacks in 2012. All the dots of all three maps cluster around Niger and its neighbors. Hello?
And what is Trump’s response to this reality? It’s to focus solely on using the U.S. military to kill terrorists in Africa while offering a budget that eliminates U.S. support for global contraception programs; appointing climate-change deniers to all key environmental posts; pushing coal over clean energy; and curbing U.S. government climate research.
In short, he’s sending soldiers to fight a problem that is clearly being exacerbated by climate and population trends, while eliminating all our tools to mitigate these trends.
That’s just stupid, reckless and irresponsible — and it evinces no ability to connect the dots or think without a box.
But this is not only in Africa: Trump was obsessed with defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq — but with as few U.S. troops as possible. The only way he could do that was by tacitly allying with Iran, Syria’s regime, Russia, pro-Iranian Shiite militias and pro-U.S. Kurds, who were the main anti-ISIS forces on the ground. We could not defeat ISIS or stabilize Syria and Iraq without all of them.
And what is Trump’s strategy now? I have no clue. We’ve distanced ourselves from the Kurds, moved to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran and added U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a country we also can’t stabilize without the tacit help of Iran next door. If you know how these dots connect, please write.
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Also: How do we stabilize our border with Mexico and maintain our neighbor’s cooperation in holding back the main source of illegal immigration today — refugees from Central America — while pursuing trade policies that have weakened the Mexican peso and the Mexican economy and could lead that country to elect its own anti-American populist-nationalist?
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Nothing Trump ever says has a second paragraph. His whole shtick is just a first paragraph: Build a wall, tear up the Iran deal, tear up TPP, defeat ISIS, send troops to Niger and Afghanistan to kill terrorists, kill climate policy, kill family planning, cut taxes, raise military spending. Every box just marks an applause line he needed somewhere to get elected. Nothing connects — and we will pay for that.
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Indeed, if you want to know what it looks like when a country follows a leader with no second paragraph and no ability to connect dots, visit London. I was there last week. Britain’s political system is in turmoil, and its economy is facing declining growth prospects, because a bare majority voted to follow leaders with no second paragraph — we’ll just quit the European Union and everything will be fine, they said.
Well, now it’s a fine little mess they have. The governing Conservatives have no clue how to quit the EU without doing even more damage to their country’s future. That’s what happens when you vote for “disrupters” who never spent a second thinking through how all of their disruptions connect the morning after the morning after.
Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting in Beirut and Israel and one for commentary.