Interventionism as Investment


America is on the verge of entering into the least popular intervention in our history. According to the administration’s case, it is now a matter of international “credibility.” It also doesn’t hurt, as Kerry noted that “if the U.S. is prepared to do the whole thing. The way we’ve done it previously in other places” that other Middle Eastern nations are willing to bear the brunt of the cost. But that’s an ad hoc solution, and puts us both too far into a business model to get things morally right, and not far enough to get the business model right. I’m fine with being moral (and going in for the 100,000 dead before the arbitrary “red line”). And I’m fine with being a good businessman (and at least lessening the sting of not being the moral beacon everyone already knows we aren’t). I don’t think many people are fine with messing up both.

A paper that came out in 2000[1] notes that there has never been a nation with GDP per capita (PPP) of over $6,055 (a little over $8,000 in current dollars) where democracy failed. Meanwhile, nations under that amount fail to stay democracies almost inevitable. It’s just a matter of how long it takes them to fail. Now GDP alone doesn’t get rid of a despot, but it at least lets you know what despots are worth investing in getting rid of. It can also outline the preliminary steps needed (to use the preferred term) to “topple” a dictator, without hopping in the grave ourselves. This is off topic if the Syria deal has nothing to do with spreading democracy. But, as far as I know, no truly democratic government has ever gassed their own citizens. What I’m trying to describe here would regrettably fall under the bad pun of “killing with kindness.” But it seems clear that by promoting economic policies that get transitional states ready for the transition; we don’t have to go in “the way we’ve done it previously in other places.” It costs less for us, is more effective, and leaves the “liberated” country with more spare change. Call it interventionism as investment.

The first aspect of interventionism as investment is that–as with any investment– you do your homework. You check to see if the investment is a good one. And some of the indicators of whether this is the case or not may be surprising. How young the population is, whether or not the previous dictator was personalist—essentially running the state like a family business, and what the GDP per capita is, are a few important indicators. In investment, the homework comes before any gut-wrenching imperative. In interventionism, if we have a responsibility to intervene, we have a responsibility to intervene responsibly.

The Arab spring has already failed in Egypt because we didn’t intervene when we should have. And I don’t mean militarily. Like most of Africa, where broadband cell access is available, but there’s no power to charge the phones, we unwittingly enabled some “progress” that was doomed to fail (if you buy into Twitter actually playing a crucial role in the whole deal). The “homework” here is that Mubarik was a personalist dictator. This puts the chances of Mubarik being followed by another personalist dictator at well over 60% [2]. Educated adults who are in control of their lives are also more likely to successfully challenge and overthrow an autocratic regime. A paper published in 2012 by London School of Economics researcher Tim Dyson [3] contends that lower fertility rates coincide with people taking control of their lives. This explains the trend that nations with lower average age are less likely to successfully overthrow autocratic regimes. Egypt’s average age is 25 (the U.S.’s is 37, the E.U.’s is 41). And, for the last two years, Egypt’s per capita GDP has been around $3,000, well below the threshold for creating a long term democracy.

If we really cared about the revolution in Egypt—as the media frenzy seemed to portray— we were much too late with an intervention. Through the early 90’s we were involved with massive debt relief in exchange for Egypt’s role in Desert Storm. This helped Egypt’s macroeconomic performance, but occurred a good ten years before many privatization efforts in the country, and never trickled down from the centralized bureaucracy. Now if—idealistically—we’re working on a spectrum of democracy versus citizen-harming despots, we really missed the point here. Even if at the time the conflict was in Iraq, we set another country back a decade or two by expanding the gap between a dictatorship’s economic clout, and that of the people. Democracy prescribes equal voices, and access. Ideals aside, those cost money, and to a certain extent, money equally distributed. By failing to provide measures under which debt reduction would translate to meaningful economic progress, education, and reproductive health measures, (in other words, the indicators for a successful democratic transition) we intervened as indiscriminately as pointing cruise missiles at Syria. Now you might say, “but Iraq isn’t Egypt.” But when you spend a decade militarily intervening in a war-torn region, and there still isn’t much progress, you’re missing the root of the problem. The same few powers have shifted through a particularly vulnerable region, and, to speak directly, the rebels in Syria are the same extremists we made refugees in Iraq. Successful interventionism isn’t about removing a figurehead and occupying a country until riots die down. It’s about working for systemic change that can sustainable provide circumstances in which democracy works.

Now Syria is in the same boat as Egypt in the early 90’s. Per capita GDP is around $3,300. There is a personalist dictator in power, and the median age is 22.3, a full three years lower than Egypt’s at the time of the Arab spring. I’m not talking morality here. Just that there’s a better cost-benefit analysis than how many boots on the ground can take out Al-Assad and keep crime low. We’re talking about a prolonged problem (100,000+ dead) and a prolonged solution. Pulling down a statue doesn’t bring back jobs, or dead loved ones. It’s time to ramp up targeted economic aid. Not ICBM’s.