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Opinion

Libya's sharp lesson for America's foreign priorities

A regional youth spike means more trouble, unless we change the game.

By Mark Lange / May 5, 2011



San Francisco

For any country that Washington considers strategic enough to bomb – never mind commit NATO or American men and women to die in – Libya offers the latest in a long line of learning opportunities.

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If we can agree on even one conclusion from the past two decades, let it be this: US foreign policy must raise the bar (substantially) for military intervention – and raise the ante (dramatically) to support the kind of real economic development that stabilizes volatile states and enables democratic freedoms.

Conventional wisdom on Libya reads like the traditional blend of fuzzy-headed idealism and ham-fisted naiveté: To protect Libya's freedom-seeking people, let's pound strategic targets with laser-guided ordnance, try to avoid civilian targets that Muammar Qaddafi's troops are hiding in, and see if he leaves voluntarily.

Summing up this magical-thinking foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that "Colonel Qaddafi must go, now, without further violence and bloodshed." This decisive-sounding spin started two months ago – when hope officially became a strategy.

The limits of American power lie not in our ability to wish tyrants away, or to deploy military assets – even now – but in our commitment to back up civil society in struggling nations with the tools for self-sustaining economic growth and wealth of their own creation.

It's time for the administration to step back and define its standards for intervention in the immediate term, a path for successful outcomes in struggling states like Libya, and a coherent strategy for global stability that includes serious economic development work.

Think tanks think 'tanks'

This won't be easy in Washington, where some think tanks just think 'tanks,' and others invoke abstractions (ideology, culture, religion) as the "root causes" of global instability. But it's just possible that, more fundamental than any clash of civilizations, what we're seeing is a clash of generations driven by rebels with a very practical cause. Rebels who are saying (in so many words), "Find me a job!"

In unstable states like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and Sudan, people under 20 are now over half of the total population. Think about that. Half a population with no hope of legitimate livelihood. As more young men compete for income in jobless economies, enormous social pressures build, exacerbated by intensifying urbanization – fertile ground for instability, insurgency, and terrorism to gain root.

No doubt this new global generation is persecuted by regimes that are inept, corrupt, and brutal. But how would even the most benign of governments "run" a country under such conditions?

Countries with a demographic youth spike and no economic growth are becoming ungovernable. That has led to aggressive Taliban recruitment in South Asia, adolescent soldiers recruited to carry conflict across sub-Saharan borders, and ongoing tensions in the Palestinian territories. Yemen, which fed the origins of Al Qaeda, will triple in population by 2033 – with more of its youth competing for income and survival. Just a few years ago, a raid in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar traced 52 young militants based there to Darnah, a single small town on the coast of Libya – 44 of whom had volunteered for suicide missions.

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