The Real Root Causes

David Wessel has an interesting piece in The Wall Street Journal about why it shouldn’t be surprised that Middle Eastern doctors are behind the London and Glasgow terror attempts:

When Princeton economist Alan Krueger saw reports that seven of eight people arrested in the unsuccessful car bombings in Britain were doctors, he wasn’t shocked. He wasn’t even surprised.

“Each time we have one of these attacks and the backgrounds of the attackers are revealed, this should put to rest the myth that terrorists are attacking us because they are desperately poor,” he says. “But this misconception doesn’t die.”…

…”As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate,” Mr. Krueger said at the London School of Economics last year in a lecture soon to be published as a book, “What Makes a Terrorist?”

Krueger is quite right: examine the leadership of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was a multimillionaire and the heir to one of the richest families in the Gulf. His second-in-command, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a member of a middle class Cairo family and was also a doctor. Mohammad Atta, the ringleader of the September 11 terror cell, was an architect wealthy enough to have studied in Germany. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind behind many of al-Qaeda’s attacks studied mechanical engineering in the West.

The idea that poverty is a root cause of terrorism just doesn’t seem to work all that well. The countries that tend to be the largest incubators of terrorism tend not to be all that poor — Egypt and Saudi Arabia are generally wealthy countries. Even Palestinian suicide bombers tend to be disproportionately young professionals rather than poor villagers.

So, if not poverty, what does Krueger identify as the real “root cause” of terrorism?

So what is the cause? Suppression of civil liberties and political rights, Mr. Krueger hypothesizes. “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed,” he says, “malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.”

This is why Bush’s agenda for the Middle East, flawed as it is, ultimately gets it right. The reason why stable and relatively prosperous countries like Egypt seem to produce so much terrorism is because terrorist groups — like the Muslim Brotherhood — are the only alternative to the state in those countries. As I’ve frequently pointed out, it’s those who are invested in society that most feel the oppression of a state in which every facet of life is controlled in some way by the state. They are the ones who most feel trapped by the utter inability to effect political change, and the governments of the region use anti-Semitism and hatred to channel that anger away from themselves — and sometimes not even that works.

The real root cause of terrorism is not poverty, but autocracy. The brand of Middle Eastern terrorism we face isn’t caused by Israel, America, poverty, or any of the other commonly-used explanations: it is caused by the disconnect between the state and the people in many Middle Eastern countries. The only way to reduce terrorism over the long term is to reduce this disconnect and promote more democratic forms of government.

Sadly, the “neoconservative” concept of democratic development has been swept aside by a new American isolationism. The reality is that, even if one takes Iraq as being a terrible mistake, the only way that America (and the West at large) can be safe is to deal with this root cause of terrorism. We no longer have the luxury of pretending that we can subsidize the one-man rule of the Mubarak regime in Egypt or ignore the plight of the millions in Iran held under the thumb of the Islamic theocracy there.

Democratization is the only way to ensure that the Middle East does not some day explode into a frenzy of violence that could easily destabilize the world. Even if the rest of the world reduces their dependence on Middle Eastern oil, the reality is that committing acts of terrorism doesn’t require massive amounts of petrodollars. We have to engage with that region and the world must support all those who would push through democratic change.

Yet the world seems to have lost its will to do so, and by the time the next terror attack rolls around, the American people may well be focused more on taking revenge than on reforming the Middle East. In the rush to discredit Bush and the policies in Iraq, this nation has lost sight of the most crucial task we must complete in order to lift away the shadow of Islamic terrorism — and it is that lack of foresight that will ensure that this problem will not go away until the US and the rest of the world stand up to confront it.

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