Can outsiders—even one as powerful as the United States—stabilize the most fragile states in the greater Middle East? A look at five of the region’s toughest challenges—Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan—suggests not. True stability requires education, jobs, and an absence of corruption. All are in short supply across these countries, and the earnest efforts of outsiders can only do so much to make a difference. These five sets of facts demonstrate that while some of these countries have shown flashes of progress, none inspires confidence that a bright longer-term future lies ahead. That’s something leaders in the developed world must consider when deciding how many troops and taxpayer dollars to devote to the effort.
In some ways, Washington’s best shot at bringing stability to the region was in Afghanistan. The U.S. committed to a full-scale military campaign to root out the Taliban there, and on the heels of 9/11, had the popular support to remain in the country long enough to try to help rebuild it. But 14 years of war and $685.6 billion later, critical problems remain unsolved.
Education is chief among them. The United Nation Development Programme’s Education Index ranks the country 169 out of 187—not surprising given that adults in the country have received an average 3.2 years of schooling. The disparity in secondary school enrollment between males (70 percent) and females (38 percent) remains a serious concern. Afghanistan is also the third most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International, ranking 172 out of a possible 175.
Afghanistan still depends on international donors—led by the U.S.—to pay for roughly 2/3 of its government’s expenditures, according to 2013 IMF figures. Domestic revenue only accounts for 21.2 percent of the government budget. It’s hard to be stable when you’re relying so heavily on the goodwill of others.
Where is Iraq today? Americans’ initial support for the ambitious state-building project that followed the 2003 invasion waned quickly, turning Iraq into a high-wire act for the U.S. military. A Sunni insurgency was (temporarily) beaten back, and the Iraqi government then pushed U.S. forces to leave.
There’s no mystery why the country remains unstable. The best-funded, best-equipped terrorist group in history now occupies significant amounts of the country’s territory. Oil prices, crucial for state revenue, have fallen dramatically in recent years and are unlikely to rebound soon. Iraq today has an overall unemployment rate of 16 percent; when just looking at youth unemployment, that number jumps to 34.1 percent. As of 2011, 96.4 percent of Iraqi families had no healthcare.
It’s estimated that between 2003 and 2007, half of Iraq’s doctors fled the country—and why should they return? Saddam Hussein presided over a notoriously corrupt regime, but his removal from power did not improve the situation much on that front; the country is only two spots higher than Afghanistan on the Transparency International Corruption Index, coming in at 170/175. Is there a solution to these problems that involves foreign intervention on a scale and over a time frame that will be acceptable to voters and taxpayers in the country that might intervene?
When Muammar Qaddaffi made it clear he was prepared to slaughter thousands of his own citizens during an uprising in 2011, 14 NATO members sprung to action. Already embroiled in two other wars at the time, the U.S. decided to “lead from behind.” Qaddaffi was removed from power, but there has been no stable force to replace him.
Today, Libya has two competing governments, and ISIS-inspired militants are knocking on the door. 434,000 Libyans have been forced to flee their homes from violence, with nearly half of those coming in the last year alone. The overall unemployment rate hovers near 20 percent; youth unemployment is above 50 percent. GDP growth for the country in 2013 was -13.6 percent, and in 2014 it was an even worse -24 percent. And, of course, corruption remains rampant—67 percent of Libyans report paying a bribe to utilities in the last 12 months. If you have to bribe people just to turn the lights on in your home, what hope can you have that life will improve for you and your children?
By the time the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, the U.S. was more than happy to let the Saudis take the lead in beating back rebels and jihadis. Unfortunately, the change in leadership hasn’t yielded much better results. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. In 2009, 42 percent of the population lived below the poverty line; by 2012, that figure was at 54.5 percent. Given the ongoing fighting, it’s a safe bet that it’s risen since then. Only 58 percent of males and 40 percent of females are enrolled in secondary school. Since March, more than 1 million of the country’s 25 million people have been displaced, and it is estimated that more than 75 percent of Yemenis are in “dire” need of aid today. For more than a decade, Yemen relied on oil exports for about 60 percent of government revenues. In the last year alone, the price of oil has plummeted by more than 50 percent, taking a sizeable chunk out of Yemen’s budget.
The U.S. tried state-building with popular American support in Afghanistan; they tried it without popular American support in Iraq; they tried leading from behind in Libya; they tried staying out of the fray in Yemen; the results were virtually the same across the board. And then there is Syria, a conflict so complicated that the best the U.S. can hope for is that some combination of countries and actors ends up doing what Washington can’t do alone.
More than 200,000 Syrians have been killed since the war began, 4.18 million Syrians have left the country entirely and another 7.6 million have been displaced internally. In other words, more than half the country’s population has been uprooted since the violence began. Secondary school enrollment rates for Syria’s remaining youth is at 48 percent, which means that a good portion of those left behind won’t have the necessary tools to rebuild the country when (and if) the violence ends. Add the fact that its economy has already contracted by more than 50 percent since 2011, and Syria is in dire straits—regardless of who emerges from the fray to lead the country. News that the U.S. will put some special forces on the ground in Syria is unlikely to change that, though on Friday an international agreement was reached to at least restart long-delayed peace talks.
Governments of the world’s great powers don’t like to be told that there are problems they can’t fix, no matter how ambitious the level of commitment. But before they spend more taxpayer dollars and risk more lives, U.S. and European leaders will have to help voters understand how these investments in a more stable Middle East can reasonably expect to produce a positive result. There is much that outsiders can—and should—do to help those who need help. These countries and their problems can’t simply be ignored. But when weighing what to do and how many costs and risks to accept, citizens and their leaders should begin with realistic expectations of what can be accomplished in a world with so many challenges to manage.