Libya's sharp lesson for America's foreign priorities

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

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.

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.

There will be more of these desperate young men. And yes, there will be blood. There's strong evidence that youth without jobs equals social instability: Fully 80 percent of the large-scale civil conflicts that erupted in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s happened in countries where at least 60 percent of the population was under 30.

That, in turn, means our military will get the call: Almost every instance of Western military intervention abroad since 1960 has occurred in a developing country that had recently suffered "state failure" – meaning revolutionary or ethnic war, genocide, or disruptive regime change. That was the story in Vietnam in the '60s, Lebanon in the '80s, Somalia in the '90s, and Afghanistan today. In every case, US forces were eventually brought in for combat, peacekeeping, evacuation, or protection.

The alternative? US engagement has to be less a matter of military mobilization after the fact – and more a matrix of deliberately targeted and self-sustaining agricultural, industrial, and trade-building programs, in the spirit of a Marshall Plan for unstable states.

Right now, Congress (at our behest) still devotes 22 percent of the federal budget to military spending, while funding for economic development, governance, support of civil society and overall foreign assistance totals a pathetic 1 percent. We actually invest 11 percent less in real dollars on international programs than we did at the height of the cold war in 1985. Yet the global threats we face now are far broader and more complex.

Since our demographic destiny means more uprisings and stalemates like Libya – of even more ferocious intensity – the only (and more cost-effective) way to win the global future and minimize future security risks is to recognize and fund the quieter but pivotal role that self-sustaining economic development plays in global security – not to mention the positive impact it has on the way wealthy nations are perceived in the Islamic world.

Freedom isn't remote-controlled

The hard work of freedom simply can't be done with a drone. It means standing with the Libyan people in ways that serve to stabilize the situation – in the real spade work of teaching better agricultural practices; improving water and sanitation; and promoting health, education, property rights, and microenterprise – all of the quieter, less telegenic, and harder work that targets economic growth on the ground, not laser-guided bombs from the air.

Fortunately, economically successful nations with broad-gauged enterprise become more secure and stable societies, less prone to extremism. The data suggest that countries with prosperous economies are four times more likely to be free of political and civil oppression and civil unrest than countries that remain closed.

Wealthy nations should act as if their own security depends less on military intervention, and more on enabling the sustainable prosperity of their poorer neighbors. Because increasingly it will.

We have, since John F. Kennedy, been imbued with a sense that we should "bear any burden" in support of liberty. That burden is not simply the ability to shoulder a weapon, but to show leadership in support of the fundamentals of self-sustaining economic growth for the next generation.

The longer Washington's elite lack all conviction about the power of real economic engagement – and the real limits of military intervention – the more often we'll continue to box ourselves into magical foreign policy corners.

The situation in Libya is just the latest "stalemate" that was decades in the making. Until we change the game, they will keep happening.

Mark Lange is a former presidential speechwriter and adviser to the US Agency for International Development, to whose staff he is indebted for many of the studies cited here.

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