This week's terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya — which claimed four American lives, including that of our superb ambassador, Christopher Stevens — reflects a much broader and deeper long-term problem for our national security: The Arab world as a whole is a massive failure. It is failing big, it is failing fast, and thanks to technology's ability to disseminate information quickly and widely, perceptions of that failure are spreading like a fast-moving cancer. The implications for regional and global security are profound. Just a few of the many problems that must be addressed:
Lots of things fueled the Arab Spring — anger at repressive governments, corruption, lack of opportunity. But what was its initial spark? Food prices. One-fifth of the Middle East lives on less than $2 a day, and massive price hikes (exacerbated in part by rising temperatures and water shortages) proved to be the tipping point. The price of some staples doubled between 2007 and 2008, touching off regional riots, and lingering animosity fueled the broader political uprisings that began in 2011. "The food-price spike was the final nail in the coffin for regimes that were failing to deliver on their side of the social contract," Jane Harrigan of London's School of Oriental and African Studies tells The Economist.
Demographic time bomb
Much of the Arab world is young and out of work. A United Nations report in 2009 pointed out that half the population is under the age of 24. Unemployment is sky high — 30 percent across the region — so there are literally tens of millions of young people on the streets with little to do. One thing they are doing? Reproducing. The region's population, about 310 million, is growing faster than that of any region in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa. Population growth rates are several times that of the United States, which is just 0.9 percent, says a CIA study:
· In Yemen, ground zero for al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the population growth rate this year is 2.75 percent.
· Saudi Arabia — the rigidly orthodox country that produced 15 of the 19 September 9/11 hijackers: 1.5 percent
· Iraq: 2.3 percent
· Libya: 2.0 percent
· Egypt: 1.9 percent
· Iran: 1.2 percent
· Gaza Strip: 3.1 percent
In contrast, the developed world is growing much slower: The U.S. is below 1 percent, and in the European Union, the rate is just 0.2 percent.
"The Arab world is, potentially, a big, ticking time bomb," one U.S. government analyst tells me. "But it's also an opportunity. Hopefully all those young people can be given a chance to contribute economically and help build a stable and open civil society."
Lack of development
It is difficult for those young Arabs to "contribute economically" given the widespread lack of opportunity. In the last two decades, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and even parts of Africa have cast off the shackles of the past to embark on reform and invest in growth. Not the Arab world. The Economist notes that the average company in the Middle East is more than a decade old — a sign that entrepreneurship is non-existent. Take energy out of the mix, and the region is cut off from global trade, accounting for less than 1 percent of the world's exports. As any westerner who's tried to do business there knows all too well, red tape, corruption, and cronyism are rampant.
Absence of civil rights and civic engagement
The Arab world also lags in a variety of characteristics that often divide developed nations from undeveloped ones: literacy rates, access to clean water, women's rights, higher education, and health care, to name but a few. There is too little upward mobility, too much repression, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness — the Arab Spring not withstanding. "The widening mismatch between aspirations and capabilities makes action on governance an urgent matter," points out a World Bank study.
So, what does all of this have to do with the crappy low-budget movie that's being blamed for setting off this week's unrest? The protests were used as a cover for the terror attack (on 9/11 no less) — but I'm of the view, which I hope isn't overly naïve, that hypersensitive Muslims in the Arab world might not focus so much on perceived slights to their religion if their broader sense of alienation, hopelessness, and desperation weren't so severe. Put another way, there's a causal relationship between their bitterness and our security. It's the latter that we should ultimately be concerned with.
So, what should we do?
Most citizens in the Middle East yearn for democracy — specifically more free speech and open, competitive elections, says a July Pew Global survey. A golden opportunity for America, right? So far, it hasn't worked out that way: "The United States is not seen as promoting democracy in the Middle East. (For example), in newly democratic Tunisia, only about 30 percent believe the American response to the political upheaval in their country has had a positive impact."
Assuming a more positive image of the United States benefits our national security, America essentially has two options. We can deepen our engagement with the Arab world in a more benign way, deploying more soft power (aid, educational exchanges, helping build functioning civic institutions, etc.), and we can ease up on things that are fueling anti-Americanism, like unilateral, unapologetic drone strikes, and "Made in the U.S.A." tear gas canisters given to allies to control their citizens.
No one opposes the former, in theory, though "foreign aid" is often a popular target of budget cutters (it's only 1 percent of federal spending). As for the latter, U.S. national security needs require the maintenance of robust anti-terror capabilities in the region, and, given the strategic importance of everything from keeping the oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz to countering Iran to supporting ongoing operations in Afghanistan, a sizable and visible U.S. military presence is a strategic necessity.