The “Jobs for Jihadis” Issue, Taken Seriously

I wanted to address the “Jobs for Jihadists” ruckus from the past few days in a bit more detail.  The reader may remember I mentioned this in my post of earlier on President Obama’s terrorism summit.  Obama and spokespeople had suggested that one major solution to the terrorist problem was the economic situation in Islamic nations, especially for young men.  Give aid, stimulate economic development and, voila, all is well, or much better at least.  In an interview, former Vice-President Donald Rumsfeld stated rightly that millions of poor people were law-abiding citizens and had not turned to terrorism.  Why then would this proposed solution work, since the variable at work seems to be not poverty (held constant over all these countries and their citizens), but religion?  Moreover, the kind of aid President Obama usually has in mind has been shown to be both ineffective and even stultifying.  And moreover, it breeds dependency.  We have seen all this in the United States already, since the “War on Poverty” began.

Is there then any possibility that Marie Harf and President Obama might be partly right?  Maybe in theory?  I think there is.  But it is not as flattering to the Obama administration as they might wish.  Start with this basic assumption:  Economic development is a good thing, all other things being equal.  It isn’t the highest good, but it is good.  If it works well, it benefits all citizens, not just the elites or nobility or cronies of the governing officials.  But that begs a question:  Under what conditions does it work well?  Let’s first go back to our goal: We want to see everyone have at least the unobstructed opportunity to become better off economically, so that they can have decent food, shelter, water, and health.  Let’s put away for now any talk of rights to these or to other goods like education, living wages, medical care, etc.  I am not talking about rights but about possibilities and how they might be increased.

We know what we want.  Now do we achieve that by simply off-loading billions of dollars in foreign aid, no strings attached, to the governments of those nations that harbor a portion of potential jihadists?  Once again, the history of such approaches tells the tale.  To give the short version:  It does not work—corruption, dependency effects, picking winners and losers and picking badly, etc.  In the case of budding jihadists, we also have to consider the place of religion.  But for now, let’s stick to economics.  Better ways have been suggested and in some case tried and succeeded (see William Easterley, Peter Greer, Brian Fickert, P. T. Bauer, and other development economists).  It takes a lot more than “throwing money” at poverty to bring about real and lasting change.  In a certain sense, what the countries with potential jihadists need is free market principles.  But the rub is that they often do not want those, and the potential jihadists may have been taught that capitalism (sorry for the bad word) is to be associated with the West and therefore to be rejected.  If we were able to persuade the people of these countries and regions of the benefits of market solutions, then we might see first genuine prosperity for all and in time a significant reduction in terrorist breeding.  That of course is assuming away the impact of religion, which, of course, we cannot just assume away.  Islam is a force.  In fact, embedded in it are certain anti-capitalist principles which, if interpreted narrowly, as radical Muslims do by definition, work against the very possibility for economic well-being.

Poverty can be an obstacle to peace.  With so much propaganda today, it often is used as one means to advocate violence to punish the “infidel.”  But poverty alleviation cannot proceed just any old way.   But one of the greatest obstacles is leaders of the Islamic or dominant-Islamic the nations themselves,  They are shot with corruption, with cronyism, with favoritism, and a host of problems that hinder their own citizens from gaining a better life.  I wish that story would be more widely told.  I wish the peoples of those countries would begin to perceive the real culprits of their poverty (in many instances) and remove them from power—hopefully peaceably.

I don’t think President Obama or Ms. Harr intended to sound stupid, or that, if understood in a certain way, they were stupid.  But they, like so may liberals, assume too much on the one hand and assume away too much on the other hand.  Their proposals are therefore naïve.