Let’s go out on a limb, sit down and think for a moment, and assume that State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf is right: that if we spent more time figuring out ways to eliminate youth unemployment and global poverty, we’d be spending less energy (and money) worried about decapitation-happy barbarians at the gates.
“We cannot kill our way out of this war,” said a half-pedantic Harf on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews. “We need in the … medium and longer term to go after [what] leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs … ”
Of course the Obama administration won’t be creating some wildly spun CareerBuilder.com board for professional terrorists. But our policy debate shouldn’t give the administration or other politicians wiggle room to ease their way out of a sensible conversation on how we address terrorism’s root causes.
While a naive hearts-and-minds military strategy might not be applicable in this particular situation, an awareness of ongoing socioeconomic challenges in zones of conflict as well as in the countries where recruits are being bred is as essential as precision-bombing your enemy’s training camp.
Hence, we casually dismiss global poverty and wrecked economies as contributing drivers of terrorism at our own peril. Extremism doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it happily feeds off the dashed dreams of the jaded and dispossessed: Europe, a central pool of Islamic State group, or ISIS, recruits, has a staggering youth unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent.
Why the fake surprise that the largest streams of recruits hail from France (1,200 recruits) and the United Kingdom (600 recruits), when these countries fail to manage a mix of rampant racism, diverse migrant populations and high youth unemployment—which equals too many restless, disgruntled kids (many from disadvantaged populations) languishing about in advanced Western economies?Middle Eastern despots unwilling to spread their oil wealth play with fire as they allow their 27 percent under-age-25 unemployment rate to fester, joined by spin-cycled North African countries where the youth unemployment rate is near 30 percent.
So why is that such a difficult talk to have? Even respected publications with Wall Street audiences called it long before Harf ventured into it. Bloomberg’s Peter Coy, eyeing the Arab Spring in 2011, along with flashes of unrest from North Africa to Europe, described “The Youth Unemployment Bomb” as a growing global unease set off by “econom[ies] that can’t generate enough jobs to absorb [their] young people [that have] created a lost generation of the disaffected, unemployed, or underemployed—including growing numbers of recent college graduates for whom the post-crash economy has little to offer.”
Corrupt, clueless or altogether incompetent governments unwilling to create climates of opportunity on the back end will inevitably hit social calamity and war on the front end. In Nigeria you could see Boko Haram on the horizon years before it was kidnapping schoolgirls, flattening entire towns and disrupting whole regions. Despite its vast accumulated oil wealth, a ridiculously corrupt Nigerian government simply ignored the fact that it was ranked third on the World Bank’s Global Poverty Index while hoarding billions of needed dollars from economically crushed citizens in the nation’s north.
No less than Harf’s boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, was saying the same thing about a month ago at the Davos, Switzerland, World Economic Forum. Red-faced trolls, perhaps preoccupied at the time with more pressing matters like deflate-gate, missed it.
“Eliminating the terrorists who confront us today actually only solves part of the problem,” said Kerry, pushing anti-poverty agendas that few poor people would know about. “We have to do more to avoid an endless cycle of violent extremism. We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge.”
The connection between rampant joblessness and raging terrorism is pretty obvious. What we suffer from, even as the White House convenes a summit on extremism (which the Brookings Institution’s Jeremy Shapiro blasts as a “waste of time”), is our collective unwillingness to detach raw, post-9/11 emotionalism from a conversation in urgent need of an intellectual overhaul. Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram aren’t jack-in-the-box pop-ups that appear out of nowhere. They are the result of historic, strategic and regional forces that breed them.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.